Tag Archives: character study

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night Boat to Tangier

I’m back to the Booker Prize longlist with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. The synopsis of this one sounded excellent to me, but my expectations may have been a bit too high- the book didn’t quite live up.

nightboattotangierIn the novel, two Irish gangsters- Maurice “Moss” and Charlie- wait at a ferry terminal for a boat carrying the estranged daughter of one of the men. Whether she is coming or going from Tangier is unclear to them, but they are confident about recognizing her or encountering (and successfully intimidating) someone who knows her. While they wait, they recount lives of violence, loss and betrayal- events that have both pushed them apart and bound them together.

“They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling. They pick up the flyers and rise again. They offer them to passersby- few are accepted. Sympathy is offered in the soft downturn of glances. The missing here make a silent army.”

I must say that Barry’s prose in this novel is exquisite. It’s lyrical, peppered with Spanish and Irish lingo, and brimming with metaphors that almost always hit the mark. The narration is a third person omniscient, which allows the reader to see into both men’s lives (though the focus is clearly on Moss) but also gauge others’ perceptions of them. The timeline bounces between the wait at the port and some of the earlier events that have led our characters to this day.

The story itself is where things started to go a bit downhill for me. Quality writing is a huge determining factor in whether I’ll appreciate a book, but it’s not the only factor. And sadly, neither plot nor characters quite matched the perfection of the prose for me.

To begin with, almost all of the action occurs in the past timeline- the present is reserved for reflection and… waiting. Though Charlie and Moss do have a few encounters at the port station, the fact that they are waiting for someone specific makes those early conversations with other characters feel superfluous. I might still not have minded that Night Boat to Tangier is slow on action if the action hadn’t been so very expected. I think Barry does a great job of circling around the drug trafficking aspect that lies at the heart of this story and instead focusing on its myriad affects in the lives of those involved- the relationships that are formed, the lifestyles required, the attitudes adopted. But I expected a pair of aging Irish gangsters to make for a grittier read, and instead found the usual drug use, infidelity, bad parenting, etc. presented with such a lack of nuance and originality.

“It was a fucking joke life. It was fucking beautiful. They never caught us- that was the important thing.”

In the end, I think my biggest impediment came in the form of the characters; though Moss and Charlie are criminals who’ve made plenty of bad choices, they are clearly supposed to draw on the reader’s heart. They’ve had a rough time of it, and perhaps had less choice about the careers they began than they can admit, and in any case are now trying to do The Right Thing. The book’s focus on love and attempts to mend important relationships seems an encouragement for the reader to overlook Moss and Charlie’s criminality and see only their emotions. In almost every review I’ve seen for this book, readers have been prepared to forgive just about anything that didn’t quite work for them because they became so attached to Charlie and Moss. I’m clearly in the minority- but I thought these two men seemed like such cardboard cutouts of gangsters that I really could never bring myself to care about them at all. Though their fascinating friendship should be the highlight of the novel, my lack of belief and interest in them as people barred me from making as much of their dynamic as other readers seem to do. Dilly was the only character I found very convincing, and Barry doesn’t give us much of her.

“She can see her mother, in the hotel bed […] turning again and again in a hot, awful soak, and she can feel the heat off her, it radiates, she’s like a brick oven, and Maurice sits by the window, it’s very late, it’s summer and such a humid night, and he’s looking out to the car park, smoking a number, and very lowly, under his breath, he’s going / fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck / and she knew then that they were definitely not like other families.”

None of this is to say that I was bored while reading. The chapters are short, and the scenes switch often enough that even where it is predictable the story is never a slog. I’ve already mentioned that I adored the writing style- I marked so many stunning passages that I could have filled this review just with quotes and not lost any length. There’s one superb scene that will surely stick with me, in which Charlie and Moss are having a public confrontation narrated entirely through the eyes of other patrons in the bar who become aware of the tension in the room and wait expectantly for something to happen. Something does, of course. The dynamic between Charlie and Moss is certainly fascinating; though they’ve been in competition with each other for so long and have so many reasons to see each other as enemies, still they have maintained a friendship stronger than anything else that has come and gone for them in the intervening years. I would’ve loved to see this story explored further in every direction.

“He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Is haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”

Though this was a fun read, I didn’t feel that it left me with any new perspective of the world or food for further thought. If I had picked the book up on my own for a quick escapist read, it might have fared better, but as  part of the Booker Prize longlist I had hoped for more thematic depth than “smuggling illegal goods can ruin your family.” But Night Boat to Tangier is a good time at the very least, and many readers seem to be finding more to praise it for than I have, so if the synopsis interests you don’t let my mediocre review steer you away from giving it a chance.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m really disappointed I didn’t like this one more. Maybe I’m missing something, as it seems to be receiving a lot of love from other reviewers. In any case, a reread (even just for that wonderful writing) isn’t out of the question, and I am curious to check out more of Barry’s work based on the strength of his prose alone. I don’t really see this one making the shortlist despite its crowd popularity, but I’ve been wrong before. In any case, flaws and all, I had a better time with Night Boat to Tangier from start to finish than I’m having with my current Booker Prize read, Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

Links to my previous Booker Prize longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, and Lanny.

How is the Booker Prize longlist going for you so far?

 

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: The Dirt

There’s a bit of a story behind my picking up Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: Confessions of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band (with Neil Strauss) last month. First, I read Daisy Jones. While reading, I happened to log into to Netflix (which I hadn’t done for weeks) on the very day that the film version of The Dirt was released there. My reaction to the trailer was basically “Mötley who?” but it seemed on theme, so I gave it a go. Soon after, coincidentally, I found some Mötley Crüe original vinyl in my parents’ basement, and had a chat with my dad about his days as a fan back in college. Then I found The Dirt on the Rory Gilmore reading list, of all places. A Stranger Things 3 trailer was released with a Mötley Crüe song playing through the opening scene. If any of these things hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would have ended up checking out this book, despite all the rest. But those things did happen, and here we are.

the dirtIn the book, the four original members of glam metal band Mötley Crüe– along with several adjacent “characters”- tell the nonfiction tale of the group’s creation, its rise to fame, and subsequent fall. Through alternating perspective chapters and a fairly straightforward chronology, we see the band confess their highs and lows through a retrospective lens of reflection. There are shocking reveals of crimes, deaths, and general immorality as remembered by Nikki Sixx, Vince Neil, Tommy Lee, and Mick Mars, but the book also offers a broader depiction of the rock scene in this era, and the circumstances that birthed the wild lawlessness that defines Mötley Crüe.

“There was Nikki, who was dying; Tommy, who was getting loaded and fighting with his wife; Vince, who was completely out of control; and Mick, who basically woke up every morning and drank and sobbed to himself until he passed out. And this was supposed to be one of the biggest, greatest rock bands in the world.”

By far the most compelling aspect of this autobiography is the mix of 80’s glamour and, as the title suggests, absolute dirt. It’s simultaneously thrilling to watch this misfit band of nobodies beat the odds of superstardom, and appalling to encounter their (mis)adventures along the way. Actually, I’m not sure “appalling” is a strong enough word. If you’re a reader who needs to like or sympathize with characters to enjoy a book, this will absolutely not be the book for you. My enjoyment while reading this book is not in any way on par with my opinions about these people. In fact, I have a friend who probably still hates me for my constant updates on the changing status of “which Crüe member I hate most at the moment” through all 400 pages of this read.

“At first I was relieved because it meant I hadn’t raped her. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I pretty much had. I was in a zone, though, and in that zone, consequences did not exist. Besides, I was capable of sinking even lower than that.”

Though there’s certainly an attempt made by all band members to look back on their 80’s wrongdoings with enlightened 2000’s perspectives, the quote above is a fair example of how close they actually come to remorse or apology- not close at all.

So why keep reading, you may ask?

It becomes clear very early on that the rock ‘n roll culture of the 80’s that has been so immortalized was also a very dangerous place. The members of this band are people who’ve had absent parents and/or difficult childhoods, and if I remember correctly, every single one of them dropped out of high school; they founded the band on desperation and street smarts, with a love of music and Jack Daniel’s and not much else. Some of them were not even old enough to legally enter the establishments where they played their early shows when the band began, though this didn’t stop them from entering or consuming plenty of booze while there. Daisy Jones didn’t lie about the prevalence of alcohol and drugs in band life- if anything, that novel seems to have downplayed the problem.

“Because I was always starving and amped on uppers, I often felt as if I didn’t have a body, like I was just a vibrating mass of nerves.”

Not only was bad behavior allowed as Motley Crue’s popularity increased, but it was encouraged. And that is the reason I stuck with this book despite everything horrendous it had going on. The Dirt showcases an unjustifiable level of corruption and greed in the music industry during this era; from managers and producers admitting aloud to caring about nothing but the money they stood to gain, to fellow musicians reinforcing the party lifestyle, it’s obvious that the most shining of personalities would’ve stood little chance of coming out clean.

“We thought we were the baddest creatures on God’s great earth. Nobody could do it as hard as us and as much as us, and get away with it like us. There was no competition. The more fucked up we got, the greater people thought we were and the more they supplied us with what we needed to get even more fucked up. Radio stations brought us groupies; management gave us drugs. Everyone we met made sure we were constantly fucked and fucked up.”

Alcoholism wasn’t understood at the time. Addiction wasn’t understood. The corrupt bosses who sold the records stayed quiet, behind the scenes. The fans heard the music, and saw Mötley Crüe’s energy and excitement on stage- the band’s health and well-being didn’t matter to the crowds. Their whole lives were on display for public entertainment, and the public was entertained. What shocked me most while reading The Dirt wasn’t anything that the band members did under their disturbed interpretation of “fun;” it was that everyone else seemed to accept these actions from them so easily. To want them, even. The band members themselves seem surprised by how far they were allowed to go.

“For ten years solid, we had been invincible. No one could touch us. Tommy and I had raped a drunk girl in the closet, and she had forgotten about it. Vince had killed someone in a car accident, and gotten away with it. We had released two albums we hardly even remembered recording, and they still sold like crazy. I had overdosed and forced the cancellation of our European tour, and our popularity only increased.”

When Mötley Crüe crashed and burned in the 90s, they were completely lost. They made attempts, tried to carry on each in their own way, but sobriety and a changing music industry pulled them out of the only lifestyle they knew. Yet they never quite grew up or out of old habits.

The last third of the book was not as captivating for me as the rest. The format grew lax, fewer pictures were included (and a portion of the ones that were present came from the band’s heyday rather than fitting their ages in the narration), and it felt like a group of celebrities trying to convince the world they were still big after everyone had moved on. Awkward. Certainly there was still a lot of public interest in their marriages, their incarcerations, their breakups and makeups as musicians. It wasn’t quite the same, though. And through no fault of the book, it ended and was published before the band’s Final Tour in 2014-15 and the making and release of The Dirt film (which obviously wouldn’t have happened before the publishing of the book anyway), both of which brought fresh attention to the band and might have wrapped up their story in this volume more satisfactorily.

And yet, even after the end of the book lost my interest and the only band member I had any respect left for was Mick Mars- the quiet one with the bone disease that prevented him from living the high life in quite the same manner as his bandmates- I still found The Dirt compelling and downright eye-opening. I’m no psychology expert, and it’s never explicitly stated, but I do think the intent of this book is not to glorify the “decadence” Mötley Crüe describes, but to expose the ways that an entire cultural movement contributed to their ruination. That was my takeaway, at least.

“Then Ricky asked, ‘Are you wearing makeup?’ 

‘Yeah,’ I told him.

‘Men don’t wear makeup,’ he said firmly, like it was a law, with his friends backing him up like a jury of the normal.

‘Where I come from, they do,’ I said, turning on my high heels and running away.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. My experience with this book has only reinforced my determination to pick up more nonfiction this summer. If this is what it’s like, I’ve been seriously missing out. I do think this a book that’s worth the read if you’re interested in nonfiction at all, even if you don’t like Motley Crue’s music or “glam metal” in general. (I didn’t even know that was a genre, to be honest.) I can’t say I’m a big fan, myself. I had only a mild interest in classic rock before Daisy Jones and The Dirt; I watched Bohemian Rhapsody twice, but I’ve never seen any of those band documentaries or reunion shows that seem to air pretty regularly. I barely even recognized the name “Mötley Crüe” before watching the film, but in the end I’m so glad that circumstances led me to this book. It’s been a weird, horrifying, and enlightening ride.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Looker

I’ve read two books widely classified as “thrillers” so far this year, and it’s probably telling to admit that the one I liked the most was the one that felt the least like a true thriller. I was drawn to Laura Sims’s debut, titled Looker, for its similar placement on the edge of the genre.

lookerIn the novel, an unnamed woman’s obsession with her neighbor (“the actress”) grows as her life begins to collapse. She hasn’t been able to conceive, her husband has left her, and she’s digging herself into some trouble at work. In an effort to push away all the complications that weigh her down, the actress becomes more and more of a fixation for this woman.

Much like Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Sims’s Looker is a captivating little novel (only 180 pages!) with thriller elements, though classifying it as a traditional, full-blooded thriller would be to its detriment. Rather, Looker is a psychologically-driven character study of one unnamed woman’s mental deterioration over the course of a few weeks.

Though much is made of our narrator’s preoccupation with the actress- and indeed this facet of the “plot” bookends the story- it is only a side-effect of the greater issue here: the woman’s frustration with her inability to conceive a child of her own. Years ago, she and her husband moved to this neighborhood full of families-in-the-making, close to a park, with the spare room of their apartment a permanent nursery-in-progress. If at times Looker seems confused about what sort of book it is trying to be, that may come down to the fact that our narrator focuses on the actress in order to avoid what is truly on her mind.

” ‘A kid, do you have a kid?’ She’s looking at me intently now. Careful now, careful. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t.’ I try to say it lightly, breezily, like it doesn’t mean a thing, like it isn’t weighed down with the agony of years of trying, of my lost marriage, of the terrible emptiness of that extra room, but I fail. Sadness and the bitterness of failure lodge in the back of my throat, and I see that she has seen it. Sensed it. I panic.”

Looker brims with potential. There are so many feminist undertones layered into the story with varying degrees of subtlety; the woman notes feeling blamed for her inability to conceive- by her husband, her doctor, her community- as well as for her impending divorce; she feels fiercely the hypocrisy of her boss lecturing her for a transgression he has committed himself. But all of this is tainted by the fact that she is essentially going crazy because she can’t have a child. The kicker is that it’s unclear whether she wants one for any reason other than the fact that she can’t conceive. Unlikeable characters can certainly be compelling in their own way, but this woman seems contrary for the sake of being contrary, always wanting what she doesn’t have and quickly tiring of what is within her grasp. What should have been a moving and tragic situation becomes a bit absurd when the reader realizes how uncomplicated the situation is. We learn early not to trust much that this woman says, even within her own thoughts, though Sims never uses the misdirection that should be possible through such a lack of trust to any advantage.

But disappointments aside, this is a fast-paced stunner of a book that could easily be read in one sitting (though technically I read it in two because I “sampled” about 20 pages the day before I was actually intending to read the book). Sims allows for white space between paragraphs and proper breaks between scene shifts, but there are no chapters. It is hard to stop once you’ve started. The story takes a detour in the middle when an incident at school (our narrator is a professor in a dwindling college English department) pushes the actress out of focus for a time, but Sims does not loose track of where the plot is headed. When the final act spins out on the page, it manages to hit that sweet spot right between surprising and inevitable.

“How does one get to live such a charmed life? How does one get to literally have it all? It strikes me as funny- that billions of us should be schlepping along, some of us barely surviving, while one person gets to be praised and lifted up by eternal light.”

I was left with one major curiosity: how the woman’s relationship with her husband ended. She thinks about him often and he does make a couple of small appearances, but much of their relationship is left mysterious. It is clear that this woman’s take on events is not necessarily a fair depiction of things, but I think Sims missed an opportunity by avoiding showing what the final straw was for this couple, as it seems to have marked the beginning of the narrator’s madness.

Nevertheless, Looker is certainly engrossing and unique as-is, a debut full of promise for what Sims might have in store. Anyone looking for (whether you know it or not) an unusual, thriller-like vignette will find this an intriguing read.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though this one was dark and fun to read, I predict that it will turn out to be rather forgettable. Looker has a lot of potential, but there’s something a bit distasteful to me about a woman going crazy because she can’t have a baby, and being jealous of another woman as a result. But this is Sims’s first novel, and it certainly holds enough promise that I’ll be interested to see where her writing goes next.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant