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Review: End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy Wrap-up)

CW: suicide, murder, gaslighting, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, cruelty to hospital patient, cancer

Almost a year after I started, I have finally finished reading the Bill Hodges trilogy, which concludes with End of Watch by Stephen King. For more thoughts on the trilogy, you can check out my full reviews of the previous books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, though I’ll also do a small series wrap-up below. It should all be spoiler-free, except any characters mentioned at this point have obviously survived books 1 and 2, etc. All in all, I see End of Watch as a fair conclusion to the series, though it failed to live up to the promising start of the trilogy for me.

endofwatchIn the novel, Hodges’s old partner on the police force calls Hodges in on a case that looks like a standard murder/suicide. One of the deceased was also a victim of the Mercedes Massacre (an intentional hit and run at a job fair), a case Hodges helped close. Though the police don’t want to look further into these new deaths, some strange clues lead Hodges back to Mr. Mercedes- aka Brady Hartsfield- at the brain injury ward of the local hospital. But is Brady still impaired? There have been some rumors on the ward that he might be faking, that strange things have been happening around him. Has he found a way to keep killing without leaving his room? And if so, how can anyone stop him?

“Dead people never look more dead than in police photos.”

Right away I was much more excited about the premise of End of Watch than I had been about book 2, because this final volume harks back to the Mercedes Massacre in a big way- an element I enjoyed in the first book and found lacking in the second. In End of Watch, we see into Brady Hartsfield’s disturbed mind once again as he attempts to resume murdering the citizens of this trilogy’s unnamed Ohio city. Furthermore, we see King return to his well-known sci-fi/horror brand in this volume rather than sticking strictly with a PI/police style mystery as in books 1 and 2. Everything boded well for me to enjoy this one.

Though ultimately I did like the basic plot and the return to some of the trilogy’s earlier threads, it just didn’t quite come together here as well as I’d hoped based on the similarities to Mr. Mercedes. In the first book, Hodges becomes freshly involved with the hunt for Mr. Mercedes for close personal reasons- Hartsfield comes after him purposefully, trying to capitalize on Hodges’s depression to goad him into suicide; in End of Watch, Hodges’s involvement in the latest case is less exciting: meddling has become a habit, and with his health coming into question he’s looking for closure (how trite). Additionally, a common issue for me with King’s work (more pronounced in some stories than others), is the ease with which the characters manage to jump to the right conclusions. They stumble upon the answers they’re looking for, or somehow know just where to look. They make no wrong turns. Intuition runs high, and actual detective work remains minimal. I found this particularly problematic in this trilogy as a whole, which purports to be a crime mystery series, but specifically it seemed most pronounced in End of Watch.

I also had some of the same complaints with this final book as I did reccently in Finders Keepers; though the writing seemed a bit more considerate towards marginalized characters, there are still a couple of racial and homophobic slurs in use, fatness is shown as something to be ashamed of, and women are fairly insignificant. Most of these annoyances come up in the killer’s thoughts and dialogue, which supports the possibility that they are knowingly used for characterization rather than an indicator of the author’s personal opinions, but I found them distasteful nonetheless. Fortunately, it’s toned down a bit from the last volume, at least.

The most worrisome element for me in End of Watch was the extreme emphasis on suicide. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is mentioned both in the text and in an author’s note at the back of the book, but I would still caution anyone sensitive to this topic to enter with caution, if at all. Though we see in book 1 how effective Hartsfield can be at persuading his victims to kill themselves, that’s only one small stepping stone in Mr. Mercedes whereas it’s the main conflict in End of Watch. Not only do several teens and young adults attempt (and mostly succeed at) suicide, but we see Hartsfield maliciously whittle down their self-esteem to convince them to do it. He capitalizes on anything these characters have been bullied about- their weight, their sexuality, their intelligence, etc. It’s plenty unsettling to see these young and vulnerable people taken advantage of in this way, and also a bit concerning that many of the characters who are victimized are the “misfits”- not straight, white, thin, and pretty. It’s difficult to say whether King meant to emphasize how difficult life can be for bullied teens, or whether he simply found them the most expendable.

“Four in the morning is usually an unhappy time to be awake. It’s when unpleasant thoughts and pessimistic ideas come to the fore.”

All in all, a mixed experience. I enjoyed the sci-fi element and was suitably horrified by the villain’s capabilities and intent; I found the plot solid if a bit convenient and predictable. The thematic focus seems to shift towards the importance of found family and supporting one’s friends, but I don’t pick up Stephen King novels for wholesome morals; they feel gimmicky to me amidst the grisly deaths and psychological terror. End of Watch, like the rest of this trilogy, isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach- it’s pure entertainment.

Was I entertained? With Mr. Mercedes, the answer is a whole-hearted yes. I thought the plot was well-crafted, the characters strong and interesting each for their own reason, and the writing acceptable. (I did read it almost a year ago, so it’s possible I just didn’t pick up on as much or don’t remember it as clearly.) With Finders Keepers, I was entertained, but I spent a decent portion of my reading time marveling over how bad that book seemed, so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely positive sort of entertainment. I liked the concept, but didn’t think much of it was executed well. With End of Watch, I’m not sure I can say I was entertained. The trajectory of the novel seemed obvious to me from early on, so I spent most of the read just waiting for the big showdown I expected at the end to arrive.

Across the entire series, my favorite elements were 1) seeing the Mercedes Massacre from every angle- its conception, its execution, its aftermath. I thought King did a great job of conveying how far-reaching a tragedy like this can be for a community, and at every turn it felt woven into the fabric of these characters’ lives. And 2) the main characters. I feel the need to caveat though that I appreciated them more early on, as they were still morphing into the people they would become. But watching Hartsfield deteriorate? Watching Holly stabilize and find her independence? Seeing Jerome succeed in school and save the day in his spare time? These are the moments I’ll remember from this trilogy, and the reason I’m still interested in reading further about Holly in The Outsider (and potentially in the upcoming If It Bleeds), despite some dissatisfaction with King’s style of late.

Final ratings: Mr. Mercedes – 5 stars. Finders Keepers – 2 stars. End of Watch

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this one so much after my dismal experience with Finders Keepers, but sadly it never seemed more than fine. Still, I’m glad I took the time to see where the storyline from Mr. Mercedes went in the end, and this trilogy certainly gave me some food for thought in my journey through King’s work. And, honestly, it’s just so nice to finish something! I feel like I’ve gotten worse in recent years about starting series and reading projects that I take forever to finish, if I ever do. And if my possible buddy read pans out, I’ll be knocking out The Outsider soon as well, the Holly spin-off. Progress is being made.

Thanks for bearing with me this far if you’re still here. I know this has turned into a particularly long and meandering review. It was probably a mistake deciding to finish this at 1:30 am.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: Lanny

CW: death (mentioned, not detailed), missing child, child in danger, ostracism

I’m finally getting into some Booker Prize 2019 nominees! I’ve discovered over the last year that I really enjoy reading from prize lists while they’re fresh, but I am taking it a bit easier with this one. Even so, There are some titles on this year’s longlist that I’ve been really looking forward to picking up, and Max Porter’s Lanny was first up.

lannyIn the novel, Lanny’s mother arranges for a local artist to give her young son private art lessons. Lanny’s father questions the man’s intentions in spending lots of unpaid and unsupervised time with a child, but otherwise it is an ideal situation for everyone- the man and the boy are fast friends, and Lanny’s informal lessons mean less time for him to spend at home where his mother works, or wandering the small village and its surrounding landscape alone, which he does often. At this time Lanny is perhaps closer to nature than people, and fascinated with a local mythic being called Dead Papa Toothwort; this magical creature, though seemingly an extension of the land, is fascinated by human civilization- and Lanny.

“Then Dead Papa Toothwort leaves his spot and wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat, drunk on the village, ripe with feeling, tingling with thoughts of how one things leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending.”

Though short on plot, Lanny has plenty of heart. This is a charming book with lovable characters that’s half magical realism, half literary fiction- sometimes a perfect blend of both, though most often the ratio is skewed either one way or the other.

This story is divided into three very different sections.

In the first, we become acquainted with Lanny and his parents, the outcast artist, and the village where they all live. We begin to see the dual faces of the community, in which newcomers and oddities are accepted publicly though perhaps not sincerely. Dead Papa Toothwort’s magical presence ebbs and flows, seeming at first rather whimsical but gradually spooling into something larger and more complex that will take up real space in the narrative. Dead Papa Toothwort catches bits of conversation that he spins together into an impressive tableau of modern human life; these are beautifully rendered on the page as the fragments curl and bend and even overlap each other, but as the bits and pieces are not strictly cohesive they seem to lend a tone to the narrative rather than supply useful content, which makes them a bit dry to read, despite their visual draw. I found this section a bit boring, to be honest, as nothing much is happening yet and the style felt a bit gimmicky to me at this point.

The second part introduces a calamity to the plot. In this portion, the magic takes a step back as the narration instead shifts from person to person, most of them anonymous, showing the many varied opinions and actions prompted by one disastrous event that both unites and divides the community. This portion of the book is absolutely brilliant- a nuanced study of how we react to tragedy, how living in a group shapes and reshapes our experiences, how wide an umbrella “human nature” may be. I also found the crisis itself very moving and compelling at this point. If the entire book had been written this way, it would surely have been a 5-star read for me.

Instead, the third portion brings the magic back to the forefront as a wild daydream guides our characters to a conclusion they’ve proved unable to reach without Dead Papa Toothwort’s assistance. The resolution of this tragedy throws realism entirely out the window- which is fine, though I tend to prefer magical realism that leans toward ambiguity.

There is a final passage- a sort of epilogue- from several years farther out; this I appreciated nearly as much as Part 2. These final pages ease back on the magic again and bring together the full implications of Dead Papa Toothwort’s role and reach. They suggest an intriguing theme that, despite the excess of magic in the lead-up, is really not so far-fetched or unheard of. Porter manages to approach a familiar point of curiosity in an entirely new and innovative way.

“I am thinking of my baby lying next door asleep. Or possibly he’s not asleep. Possibly he’s dancing in the garden with the elves or the goblins. We assume he’s asleep like a normal child, but he’s not a normal child, he is Lanny Greentree, our little mystery.”

All in all, I found Lanny a mostly enjoyable read; though I didn’t love every moment I spent with it, I am impressed with what it accomplishes. It’s a story full of fascinating dualities- the community and the self, human and nature, life and death. It’s style is unique and captivating. I can fully understand the enthusiasm it has been met with, and its placement on the Booker Prize list.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read with plenty of depth despite its foray into magic. Some parts were quite a bit stronger for me than others, which made this one hard to rate; I’ve been wavering between 3 and 4 stars. (I’m also still wavering on a final rating for my previous read- clearly I’m having an indecisive week!) In any case, I appreciated Lanny enough that I’ll want to read Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers as soon as possible.

Links to my other Booker Prize longlist reviews: Lost Children Archive, My Sister, the Serial Killer

 

The Literary Elephant

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Finders Keepers

CW: murder, living with serious injury, theft, racism, homophobia, sexism, fatphobia, child abuse (tying wrists, pushing through window, threatening at gunpoint)

Finders Keepers is the second book in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. I read book one, Mr. Mercedes, in a buddy read last year, and have been slow to continue despite thoroughly enjoying that first book. The prospect of an upcoming buddy read for another King novel (The Outsider) has finally motivated me to finish the series- today I’ll talk about Finders Keepers, and End of Watch (book 3) should be up later this week. No spoilers of course, as usual, though I’ve got plenty of complaints to air.

finderskeepersIn the novel, a writer-turned-recluse is robbed and murdered in 1978. Most of the crew that committed this crime were in it for the money, but one wanted the unpublished manuscripts and miscellaneous written work. To avoid getting caught for the crime, the books are packed away, only to be discovered by a teenager in 2014. One becomes desperate to sell the books on the black market, one becomes increasingly desperate to keep them, and neither is quite in control of the situation once a shady book dealer realizes what they have. Retired cop Bill Hodges and his PI buddies are brought into the case by a friend who wants to settle the matter before official police become involved.

“MacFarland may think [Morris is] too old to be a wolf, but what his parole officer doesn’t know is that Morris has already killed three people, and driving a car isn’t the only thing that’s like riding a bike.”

Finders Keepers is very much a bookish book. A bookish horror, one might say. It’s crammed full of references to titles and authors from a wide variety of genres; two of the main characters are big readers, and one is a bookshop owner, where part of the novel takes place. Sadly, bookish books don’t always work for me- name dropping and copious bookstore visits don’t quite make up for quality characterization and plot. Though King is generally known for his convincing characterization and unique plots, I found both elements severely lacking in this novel.

In fact, there were quite a host of aspects that just didn’t work for me here. First and foremost is that for a second book, Finders Keepers barely fits into the trajectory of the trilogy started by Mr. Mercedes and concluded in End of Watch. The few characters carried over from book one are largely unessential in this story, their appearances more like unnecessary cameos rather than a link to the rest of the series. The Mercedes Massacre (from Mr. Mercedes) does help lay the ground for the events of this volume, but any injury for Tom Saubers could have led these characters into the same situation. A bit of overt foreshadowing to indicate that the next volume will pick up the threads left dangling at the end of Mr. Mercedes comprises the only tenuous connection between Finders Keepers and the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this novel should have been a stand-alone with Hodges removed, and the other two books could have formed a nice duology.

My main problem with the plot actually has more to do with the novel’s structure. Though I usually enjoy irony, much of the suspense is removed from this story by the fact that we follow multiple characters who know different parts of the mystery. By the time Morris is panicking about where the manuscripts are, the reader has already learned their location from Pete’s perspective. Furthermore, I believe Hodges (and crew)’s sole purpose in this book is to guide the reader through this “mystery,” though by the time Hodges catches up to what is going on, everything is already clear to the reader- it’s the other characters who could use a guide.

On the subject of characters, I feel the need to address King’s poor representation of female characters- again. The last few King novels I’ve read have been much older (see: The Stand), and it’s been easier in those cases to chalk up the sexism as the product of an unenlightened era, but Finders Keepers was published in 2015. We’re way past the point where a raped woman should be presented as a villain for trying to convince her attacker’s parole board that he should remain imprisoned. And shame on King, for making her apologize to her rapist for that effort. But even outside of unsavory plot points, there were just some really awful lines making casual appearances in this book. Here’s just one example:

“Holly smiles, and Hodges thinks- as he always does- that she should do it more often. When she smiles, Holly is almost beautiful. With a little mascara around her eyes, she probably would be.”

If Holly is going to smile, it had better be for her own sake rather than to reassure Hodges that she is beautiful.

And women are not the only victims of this treatment.  The word “fat” is also thrown around copiously as a negative descriptor; villains are frequently referred to as “fat fucks,” etc. I noted at least one (each) racial and homophobic slur. Even if terrible remarks only crop up as characterization for old white men, it’s just gross for things like this to keep showing up- there are other ways to show that a character is evil (or in Hodges’s case, outdated). Instances like these are exactly the reason that his pro-lesbian messages in Elevation felt insincere to me.

But, terrible writing choices aside (and I swear it’s not always this bad), Finders Keepers does have a couple of redeeming features. The basic premise is interesting and engaging, and once we move past the mystery portion of it, the conflict is intense and unpredictable. Its morals are worthwhile for any reader, though I like to think that most are sensible enough not to kill for unpublished works from their favorite authors in the first place.

“Pete was coming to the conclusion that creative writing couldn’t really be taught, only learned.”

It is also interesting, the more of King’s work that I read, to see some of his ideas being recycled. Finders Keepers bears some striking similarities to King’s Misery in regards to theme and tone- both explore the quandary of whether a published work belongs primarily to its creator or to the audience who receives it- and reminds fans that no piece of literature is worth the writer’s (or anyone’s) life. In terms of plot Misery is a very different work (and the one I would recommend to anyone who can stomach a bit of body horror), but both seem to lead back to the same basic seed of idea; it’s intriguing to see the ways in which a thought can evolve over the course of about 30 years. Insights like these are why I keep going with King’s books, even though some of the stories really don’t work for me; it’s incredible to be able to follow a prolific writer’s trajectory through the many ups and downs of a long and remarkable career.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I can’t deny that it held my attention, though I think there were a few instances when I slipped into hate-reading it, which is compelling for a different reason. Overall, this has been a real contender for my least favorite Stephen King novel, though the other least favorites that come immediately to mind were disliked for different reasons, which makes it hard to hold them up side by side. In any case, I’m still intending to finish the series and my full read of King’s oeuvre; fortunately, End of Watch is looking like a vast improvement so far.

Is there any particular book that you wish you could remove from a series that you otherwise enjoy?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Need

Though I’ve been struggling with traditional thrillers lately (recent exception: Lock Every Door), I have been loving many books marketed as thrillers that actually lean more toward psychologically suspenseful character studies (think: My Sister, the Serial Killer). Helen Phillips’s The Need certainly fits that bill.

theneedIn the novel, Molly is home with her two small children when she thinks she hears footsteps in another room- an intruder. While trying to keep her son and daughter quiet, she goes back and forth between believing someone is inside her house, and dismissing the notion; but eventually, intruder or no, she must emerge from her hiding place. What she finds is truly frightening, but as days pass afterward, the terror takes on another flavor as the initial danger subsides only for another disturbing possibility to take its place.

“The need to go home. The need to dispense with this intruder, this nightmare, and return to two small impeccable bodies. The excruciating need.”

It’s hard to describe the true nature of this novel without giving away its only real thrill: the answer to the question about whether there is an intruder, and who. Phillips sets it up as a surprise; though it happens early in the chronology of this tale, the narration switches back and forth (through a series of short chapters) between Molly’s awareness of the possible intruder in the present, and the events of the otherwise uneventful day leading up to it. While drawing out the suspense, this tactic also allows the reader to invest in the characters and understand their usual dynamic. The slowing of pace also serves as fair warning to the reader that The Need is a  careful exploration rather than a string of shocking twists.

Ultimately, I would say that The Need is Dark Matter‘s fraternal twin. Where Blake Crouch (Dark Matter‘s author) uses science to ground his plot and excite his readers, and lets his characters fall flatly by the wayside, Phillips uses a very similar scientific/magical element, but lets that go largely unexplained while instead delving deeply into the complex moral and emotional consequences of it for her characters. Unfortunately, reading one means spoiling some of the other (I’m mentioning this potentially spoilery similarity only because I had to read 70 pages before realizing I might not have picked this book up if I had known- though I am grateful that I stuck with it). If you are planning to read both, I suggest reading Dark Matter first, for the sole reason that it uses as plot twists what The Need adopts as simple premise.

Though it is a rather quiet and quick read, The Need packs a lot of food for thought into its 250 pages. Thematically, it focuses on motherhood and family, and how traumatic events both do and don’t change a person at their core. It’s very much a book about identity. And while it may not be full of high-stakes plot twists, the first suggestion of an intruder creates a foundation for suspense that doesn’t let up until the last sentence has come and gone. Molly does fear for her life, despite other distractions, and rightfully so. Even her thoughts on motherhood tend toward the dark side:

“It had always seemed a bit deceitful to Molly, the way we put our children to bed in soft pajamas, give them milk, read them books, locate their stuffed creatures, tell them that all is well, there’s nothing to be scared of, as though sleep isn’t one-sixteenth of death. When they resist the prospect of sleep, of long dark lonely hours, intuiting that this is indeed a rehearsal for death, we murmur to them, we rub their backs, pretending they will never die.”

I found Phillips’s prose insightful and intelligent; though very little “happens” in the novel, it caught and held my attention so thoroughly that I sped through the book in two sittings. The tone is delightfully eerie, the main character wonderfully fleshed out and believable, the ties to paleobotany fascinating. Phillips gives the reader an astute look into just how far a mother’s instincts can drive her, as well as demonstrating how blurry the line between “self” and “mother” can become. The horror genre might be a better fit than thriller for this story, though I think neither quite hits the mark for how pervasively human it feels.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I actually just bumped my Dark Matter rating down from 5 to 4 stars as well; Phillips’s book made it clearer to me what Crouch’s had been lacking, just as reading Dark Matter before The Need made it hard for me to pretend that I didn’t already understand the implications of this situation the second time around. They’re a very interesting pair- for me, equally matched.  I do want to try more of Phillips’s writing so that I can try again without an unexpected subject bias; I’m thinking of trying And Yet They Were Happy, but am open to other suggestions!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

CW: cancer/terminal illness, molestation and rape, verbal abuse, parental abandonment, self-destructive behavior, beatings/physical abuse, emotional abuse… (I’m realizing that some of the CWs might be spoilery, so I’ll stop here with the warning that anyone trying to avoid specific triggers should ask or look deeper into the book’s content before reading because there’s more.)

This was my first year reading the entire Women’s Prize longlist, and it certainly won’t be my last! Though I didn’t love all of the titles (or the direction the judges went with the shortlist, but that’s another matter), it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, and sparked my interest in reading more of the past winners. Fortunately, I found a great group to tackle this project with! First up was 2014 winner Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a buddy read with Hannah, Callum, Sarah, Naty, and Rachel. (I’ll swap the links to feature the remaining reviews as they appear.)

agirlisahalfformedthingIn the novel, our unnamed protagonist narrates her life experiences to her older brother. The boy has been hindered for much of his life as the result of a childhood brain tumor that’s been expected to recur. The girl has been victim to all sorts of heartbreak and abuse in the meantime- her father’s abandonment of the family, her mother’s cruelty, inappropriate sexual attention from her uncle, and more. Her traumas shape her into a self-destructive person without a sense of identity separate from the horrors that have defined her life.

“Peel the skin off why don’t you, rip it from my bone.”

The first thing to note about this book, even before worrying about the difficult content, is the challenging writing style. McBride uses a unique form of stream-of-consciousness writing that presents as fragmented gasps and spurts and appears almost nonsensical upon first inspection. I needed to read the first three chapters twice to feel that I had a reasonable grasp of what was being conveyed; even after I reached a point at which I was able to resume a normal reading pace, I never broke past the sense that I was translating or deciphering the prose while reading, rather than understanding it organically. The writing plays with sentence structure, capitalization, spelling, etc. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s a small sample from the most experimental chapter:

“Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me iar. Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. ANd I breath my.”

It hardly looks like English here, but this is the point at which I finally started crying and live-texting a friend over how absurd and profound it seemed that anything written in this way could have such an effect. I’m sure this will alienate many readers who aren’t prepared for it, but a large part of the book’s brilliance is tied to the fact that this complicated style makes a perfect fit for the tone and content of the book; no other style would have done this story the same justice. Through most of my time with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I expected to rate the book 4 stars, with 1 removed for the dense and chaotic writing, but finally toward the end it worked a particular sort of magic in which it moved me not despite the way it was written, but precisely because it was written this way.

I would never have been able to comprehend what I was reading if I had listened to this book for the first time on audio, but after reading I went back to listen to a sample of McBride narrating the audiobook and was just as stunned with the style in that format. It is readable, but you must be willing to fully engage.

“There’s no room in this part of me anymore. Relief. I think. What’s next and next? It’s surely coming now.”

As far as content, I don’t want to say much beyond that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is absolutely brutal. It’s not a long book, and McBride doesn’t waste time lingering over the most painful moments or spoon-feeding their implications to the reader.Nor does she shy away from the narrator’s hard truths. It’s revelatory, rather than uplifting. Don’t expect a happy ending here.

What you can expect is an emotionally and psychologically observant account of the effects that abuse can have on a child, and on a woman. From our protagonist’s confused sense of self to alternating rebellious and acquiescent behavior, there’s no question that her traumas- whether she understood them to be traumas or not- have played a role in every aspect of her life afterward. She’s not so much broken as grown askew, molded into shapes that others demanded of her and punished when she didn’t fit. It’s an important glimpse into just how damaging some actions can be, and no reader should expect to emerge unscathed. I certainly didn’t.

“Thanks for the fuck you thanks for that I hear his walking crunching. Foot foot. Go. Him Away.”

It’s hard to recommend this book widely while both the content and writing seem designed to push the reader to every extreme. But if, somehow, you’re still with me at this point and not running as fast as you can from the bare power of this book, it might be worth a try.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is absolutely one of the most complex and accomplished books I have ever read, as well as one of the most emotionally taxing. I walked around in a bit of a stupor the night I finished it, and agree entirely with the jacket: “It is a book you will never forget.” This is one of a very few books I’ve read this year that I can confidently say will find its way to my Favorite Books of 2019 list, and I certainly plan to read more from McBride, as well as more former Women’s Prize winners. Even though I tremble at the thought of encountering another story like this.

What’s the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Bad Blood

John Carreyrou’s nonfiction book Bad Blood made enough of a splash in 2018 that it found its way to my TBR even before I decided that I really needed to start reading more nonfiction. Though my efforts haven’t been as fruitful in that regard as I’d intended this summer, picking up Bad Blood proved a worthwhile choice! It’s a unique true crime horror tale that certainly lives up to the hype.

badbloodIn the book, Carreyrou shares the results of his investigations into the Silicon Valley (located in California) startup company that claimed to revolutionize blood testing, but couldn’t back up its statements in the end. Theranos employees share alarming confessions of legal corner-cutting taking place in the lab, as well as the cult-like atmosphere founder Elizabeth Holmes cultivated at company headquarters. Though many investors were charmed by Holmes’s enticing speeches, words weren’t what she needed when she allowed the public to use her untested technology.

“Seeing the mock store and its little lab brought home to Hunter how real it all was. Soon, actual patients were going to get their blood drawn and tested in one of these, he thought uneasily.”

To be honest, I hadn’t paid any attention to the Theranos scandal when it appeared in the news in 2015, so this book opened an entirely new topic for me. From that perspective, I can say that Bad Blood is beginner friendly, though I can’t speak to how much new information it might contain for someone who has followed Theranos coverage more closely.

“What is Theranos?” some of you may be asking. I don’t remember ever hearing the name before I cracked this cover. I wasn’t sure I was interested in reading anything about Silicon Valley or startups or medical devices. But if this sounds like your stance, rest assured that Carreyrou provides a fascinating tale about how one woman came to be in a position where real people were relying on her word to make serious life decisions- and her word turned out to be a lie. It’s about legal loopholes and shady corporate practices and charismatic personalities capable of hoodwinking wealthy backers. Theranos was Elizabeth Holmes’s dream: a company that would create and manufacture blood-testing devices portable enough to be installed in patients’ homes, and capable of running hundreds of tests on a small sample from a fingertip- no needles or venous draws required. It was a great dream, but seemingly destined to come crashing down.

“Elizabeth had wanted all those sweeping claims to be true, but just because you badly wanted something to be real didn’t make it so.”

By far the most compelling aspect is the simple absurdity that something could go so frighteningly wrong on such a grand scale. Elizabeth dropped out of college after one year, and took off running with a patent for a medical device and the hopes of striking it rich. Though she may certainly have hoped to help the public with her technology, it is utterly apparent throughout Carreyrou’s narrative that money must have come first for her. Science and business aside (though surely those with particular medical or legal knowledge will find this story uniquely fascinating), this book will likely work for anyone interested in watching a trainwreck run its course. The details are shocking, but it’s hard to look away.

“He summed up what was going on at the company with an analogy: ‘The way Theranos is operating is like trying to build a bus while you’re driving the bus. Someone is going to get killed.’ “

There were only a couple of elements that kept me from a full 5-star rating here, and I consider them matters of personal taste rather than flaws with the text. The first is that this book feels like a very long news article. I’m not a reader who only wants nonfiction that reads like fiction, but I did find this a bit dense and undeniably factual. The amount of research that went into this project absolutely shows, and gives the story strength; Carreyrou claims to have interviewed over 150 people in the process of assembling this book, and the sheer number of voices is evidence in itself of the magnitude of this scandal. But it also means there’s a LOT of information to wade through, and it can seem repetitive at times. Secondly, with the focus so firmly on what has gone wrong with Theranos, I was left with a high level of curiosity about how the company managed to do anything right. Certain officials were charmed by Holmes, etc. but Theranos won awards! How?! The book does not provide evidence that anything is going right with this company beyond Holmes’s ability to schmooze and her team’s ability to bribe. What I really wanted to know was whether Theranos’s technology might have been functional eventually, with years of testing (and perhaps a different leader at the helm); 300 pages later, I still don’t know whether the basic idea was sound, or whether Theranos was making any positive progress at all. Of course, Carreyrou can only present the information he has, and no one knows what might have been.

Perhaps more information will come to light during Holmes’s trial. I, for one, would love to see a sequel featuring the legal proceedings.

“Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Bad Blood is a wild and alarming story that certainly has left me thinking twice about how far people will go for money. Theranos seems to have found a new moral low. In any case, it was a fascinating addition to my true crime adventures, and a subject I’m glad to have been made aware of. I will be keeping an eye out for news of Elizabeth Holmes in the future!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Orange is the New Black

CW: Racism, sexism, drug trafficking. (All are acknowledged appropriately.)

I’m a little behind on reviews, but somehow that worked out just right for Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black. I read this nonfiction book that the popular Netflix series is based on in anticipation of the final season, which released… today! I haven’t started watching yet, but am looking forward to seeing how the series ends with this final season.

orangeisthenewblackIn the book, Piper recounts a wild phase of new adulthood, when she was fresh out of college and became involved with a drug trafficking ring. After breaking free and building a new life where she thought herself safe, someone from the operation gave up her name and landed her in Danbury women’s prison. From self-surrendering at the entrance door to her release one year later, these are her experiences and opinions from inside a US women’s prison.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.”

I’ll say right off the bat that the main criticism I’ve seen aimed against this book is one I very much agree with- that Kerman comes from a privileged background that eases her experience every step of the way. The fact that she acknowledges it numerous times throughout the narrative does not negate the clear differences between her own circumstances and those of the other women in the prison. If you’re looking for a memoir about an “average” incarceration account, Orange is the New Black is far from the best choice.

That said, I do think it has a few points of value for readers willing to overlook the disparities between Kerman’s specific situation and the overall predicament she’s trying to portray. This was my first time reading a prison memoir, and as such my knowledge on the subject is limited; coming from that perspective, I did learn a few things from this book. There are quite a few statistics included, and simple facts about the legal system and how prisons are run- particularly Danbury, though Piper does also see the insides of a couple of other facilities that give her a basis for comparison. She also includes anecdotes from other prisoners who’ve shared their backgrounds or interacted with her during her stay. There’s plenty of interesting commentary about injustices in the prison system to keep the novice reader engaged.

“There was absolutely no payoff for filing a complaint. A female prisoner who alleges sexual misconduct on the part of a guard is invariably locked in the SHU in “protective custody,” losing her housing assignment, program activities (if there are any), work assignment, and a host of other prison privileges, not to mention the comfort of her routine and friends.”

But the standout benefit for me was simply being able to put my thoughts on the Neftlix series into perspective. Though the show is based on this book, it becomes clear early on that the filmed version uses only the basic premise of Piper’s situation as its inspiration, and takes plenty of liberties from there. (Even the names are different, though Kerman notes that most have been fictionalized even in her own account.) Kerman’s prose is conversational, flowing, and easy to read, but the book is nothing like the plotty and dramatic Netflix series. Though the series may be based in fact from other real-life incidents (I really don’t know how much of the show is true to life, I’ve not fact-checked it beyond reading this memoir), it is important to keep in mind that it is produced for the primary purpose of entertainment; Kerman’s book drives that point home in the most incontrovertible way.

And, of course, though Kerman’s Danbury stay may not be a “typical” prison experience, she is nevertheless a woman writing about firsthand about her incarceration. Even if her level of privilege in that setting puts her in a tiny minority, it is still worth recognizing that this is one of the myriad experiences that are possible in that setting. The differences between her story and others’ does not make Kerman’s account less valid, which I think is worth noting alongside the criticisms.

“At any time, with one phone call, my family would have helped rescue me from this mess of my own making, yet I never placed that call. I thought I had to tough it out on my own. I alone had signed up for this misadventure, and I alone would navigate it to some conclusion, although I was now petrified that it might be a very dismal end.”

Sadly, the benefits of picking up this book ended there for me. While Piper notes the many struggles other women face in prison, she’s living in a cubicle room rather than a barred cell, and has quite a bit of freedom throughout the “camp” during the day. She has a prison driver’s license, a work assignment, friends, guards who want to give her special treatment because she’s an intelligent, blonde, white woman. She uses her Danbury stay as a chance to catch up on reading- friends and family on the outside send her new books practically as fast as she can read them- to find her zen through yoga, and to lose weight. Between applauding herself for her newfound thinness and juggling her visitor list to keep it under the maximum limit of 25 names without excluding any of her many supporters, it can be difficult to take Kerman’s gripes seriously. For instance, by the time Kerman complains about the inadequacy of Danbury’s job fair, she’s already assured the reader that she has a position secured for after her release- a position that a friend created for her specifically. Her attempts to complain on behalf of the other women at times feel instead like she’s putting words in their mouths rather than giving them proper voice. No matter how good her intentions, it is simply not possible for one to speak for the many, particularly in this case when Kerman’s experiences simply do not align with the other prisoners’.

“In the worldview of these burly, clean-cut young guys, I was clearly not supposed to be resident in this fortress. I probably looked too much like their sister, their neighbor, or their wife.”

All in all, a mixed read for me. I can’t deny that Kerman has some interesting things to say about an aspect of life I’m unfamiliar with, though in the end I think the book’s biggest flaw is that it wants to be more scandalous and revealing than Kerman’s mild prison stay seems to warrant. Though she does appear to have found some kinship and perspective through this experience, it is very much a show-and-tell narrative rather than a reflective piece. Orange is the New Black is not without its own particular merit, but this is one memoir with which I think it’s important to know what you’re in for before picking up, because it won’t suit everyone.

“I knew I wasn’t better than any other woman locked up in here, even the ones I didn’t like.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though full of ups and downs, this book put me in the perfect mood to return to the Netflix series one last time. (No spoilers, please!) Someday I will want to return to other prison nonfiction to round out my knowledge of what that experience might be like, and the extent of the injustices that exist within the system; for now though, I’m content to move my reading along to other topics.

What’s the last book you read that’s been adapted into a TV series rather than a movie? Which format did you prefer?

 

The Literary Elephant