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Review: Fever Dream

This was the first year I’ve followed along with The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, and as I’d already read the winner (My Sister the Serial Killer– so glad it won!) and its top contender (Warlight– so glad it didn’t win!) I decided to pick up last year’s winner. Samanta Schweblin, also longlisted for the Man Booker International this year for a newer release, wrote last year’s ToB winner, Fever Dream. 

feverdreamIn the novella, a mother and her young daughter have taken a trip to the countryside. They’re staying in a rented house in a small village, where they meet a local woman who shares an odd story about her son. The two children play together, much to their mothers’ fright, but the disaster that occurs soon after can only be linked to the boy’s strange past by those willing to walk the line between reality and impossibility.

“Where is Nina? What happens at the exact moment? Why is all this about worms?”

The book opens on a conversation about a sensation of worms in the body. Our  narrator (the woman on vacation) is already lying in a hospital bed at the local clinic, in critical condition. She is speaking to David, her new acquaintance’s son, who may or may not actually be present. Together they discuss the events of the previous few days in an attempt to locate the “exact moment.”

This is more or less all I can say with certainty about the story, as much of it is confusing and mysterious and left to the reader’s interpretation. Which, honestly, is just the way I like it. I became so engrossed in this little book that I finished the whole thing in one sitting, through which I maintained such a level of concentration that I forgot to tab quotes or make any review notes or any of those other reading-adjacent tasks I normally do. There are no chapters, and no breaks in the narration as the story races to its conclusion, but it’s compulsively readable and the constant need to know more about the situation drives the reader ever onward. Perhaps best of all, the ending is not a clarification and the reader is given the chance to draw their own conclusions.

Why do mothers do that? … Try to get in front of anything that could happen- the rescue distance.

It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.”

Thematically, I would say this is a story of family; of what we would do or risk for those we love, and whether those choices are worth their cost. Our narrator constantly calculates a “rescue distance” to ensure her daughter’s safety- the length of time it would take her to reach her daughter at any given moment, should disaster strike. But in the end, horror can strike in any place, at any time, no matter how near your child may be, as both women at the heart of this story discover.

There’s also a striking bit of commentary here about the difficulties of raising children (or living at all) in areas with environmental dangers (whether they’re natural or caused by humans), especially in scenes where our narrator notices local children with deformities and calls David “more normal” than the other children his age, despite what she’s been told of his history.

David was the only element of this book that held me back from a 5-star rating- I found his dialogue a bit jarring and grating at times, and would have appreciated fewer interjections from him throughout the story. I didn’t have any trouble remembering he was there or the conversational format through which this story was being told- I simply didn’t need the constant reminders. But this was a small issue; overall I loved Schweblin’s writing and her command of this completely bizarre story.

It’s a challenging puzzle of a read, one I would love to have spoiler discussions about because I think there are several options to choose from in trying to piece together what has actually happened to these characters. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first closed the cover, but I appreciate books that keep me thinking after I’ve put them down, and after much consideration I’ve formed some opinions. Even so, I will probably want to reread this soon; I think Fever Dream would be one of those excellent stories with as much (or more) to offer the reader on a second pass as the first time through. If you’re a reader who is routinely disappointed or even annoyed by predictable plots, Fever Dream may be the book for you. It’s atmospheric, eerie, and utterly engaging.

“I don’t want to spend another night in the house, but leaving right away would mean driving too many hours in the dark. I tell myself I’m just scared, that it’s better to rest so tomorrow I can think about things more clearly. But it’s a terrible night.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Some of my favorite books this year have been mysterious/experimental novellas- Ghost WallMy Sister the Serial Killer, and now Fever Dream. This wasn’t quite a top favorite forever-love read, but it did confirm that I must read more of Schweblin’s work, probably starting with the Man Booker International nominee Mouthful of Birds (which I think is the only other title she has published that’s been translated into English?)

What’s the weirdest book you’ve read this year?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Bride Test

Last year I read Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in a rare romance mood, and though I had a few qualms with it about miscommunication and lack of consent, I thought it showed a lot of promise and immediately added The Bride Test, Hoang’s second (and related) novel, to my TBR. I managed to get my hands on a copy early this month.

thebridetestIn the novel, Esme (or Mý) is working a steady- if somewhat undesirable- cleaning job at a Vietnam hotel to support herself, her mother, grandmother, and small daughter. At the hotel, she meets a bold woman who is wife hunting for her grown son, Khai, who lives in America and has no idea what his mother is planning. Esme isn’t sure she’ll manage to convince anyone to marry her, but she does want to go to California to search for her long lost father, and decides to take a chance. Then she meets Khai- a kind, autistic man who doesn’t believe himself capable of love. Their families seem eager to push the two of them together, but can they admit their feelings for each other in time to wed before Esme’s travel visa expires?

“She wasn’t impressive in any way you could see or measure, but she had that fire. She felt it. That was her worth. That was her value. She would fight for her loved ones. And she would fight for herself. Because she mattered. The fire inside of her mattered. It could achieve and accomplish. People might look down on her, but she was making her way with as much integrity as she could with limited options.”

Right off the bat, I knew I was going to appreciate the exact same things about this book that I did with The Kiss Quotient; it’s wonderful to encounter a romance that offers such great representation- the man is autistic, he is American but his family is from Vietnam, and the woman is fully Vietnamese, unmarried with a child. I’m not a huge fan of romance books in general, so I like to be able to pick up a book from that genre that’s also going to offer insight into aspects of life that I’m not so familiar with. My list of elements to admire in this one included: seeing Esme learning to navigate a US airport without full grasp of the English language; seeing Khai’s perspective on how autism affects his emotions; seeing Esme care for Khai with the same enthusiasm both before and after she knew about his diagnosis, without letting him use the autism as an excuse when he does something hurtful; and seeing Quan look out for his younger brother (Khai) in a patient and considerate way. The Bride Test is a love story, but it’s also so much more.

“Everyone deserved to love and be loved back. Everyone. Even her.”

But in spite of the positives, I had more issues with this novel than I did with The Kiss Quotient, even though I liked the premise of The Bride Test more.

First, I had the same qualms as with Hoang’s first book- consent is not always asked for or given before things get physical, and, I thought a lot of the climactic tension could have been resolved (or at least lessened) if the characters had taken a moment to communicate with each other instead of walking off alone with their hurt feelings and assumptions. I understand that there’s a bit of a language barrier between Esme and Khai- she prefers to speak in Vietnamese and he prefers English; they understand each other but continue to converse in different languages. I also understand that Esme doesn’t really know what autism is or how it might manifest in Khai’s behavior or thought processes, but I do believe she knows him well enough that she would understand where he’s coming from if they would’ve had an honest conversation instead of being stubborn.

But my biggest problem with this book is simply that the entire major conflict made me uncomfortable. Admittedly, I don’t know much about autism or how to help an autistic person understand something that they seem hardwired against believing, so it’s possible that everything happening here is the “correct” way of going about it. But Esme and Quan, literally making Khai sick while trying to change his viewpoint on the matter at hand was hard to stomach. What bothers me most is that the truth was plain for everyone to see- they only pushed him because they wanted him to admit the words aloud. This is probably just a personal opinion, but I don’t think that what something is called matters as much as what something is. Esme and Khai butting heads over semantics in the final days before the deadline of her visa was not cute and angsty for me; it was torturous seeing Khai squirm between a rock and a hard place. I could see why Esme wanted Khai to say what she was asking him to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathize with her. I agreed with most everything she thought and said, and yet I did not completely agree with her behavior.

“If he didn’t love her, someone else would. She wasn’t going to settle for a one-sided love. Not in this lifetime. Not ever.”

Perhaps most problematic to my reading experience, I was never quite convinced by Esme’s character. From the way she’s described by the other characters and the personality she presents in her own chapters, it seems like there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about her. She’s sunny and optimistic, nice to everyone, and smoking hot besides, of course. She’s worried that she’ll be turned away because of her family’s poverty or her young daughter, born out of wedlock. Unfortunately, these are real possibilities in life, but it’s obvious to the reader- and should be obvious to Esme- that they bear no significance with Khai. Furthermore, I don’t think The Bride Test is promoting very healthy practices between new couples by allowing Esme to get away with concealing her daughter from Khai’s family for almost the entire novel- that’s just not something you should wait to introduce to a potential partner until the day of the wedding, no matter the circumstances.

But The Kiss Quotient won Hoang a lot of fans, and I’m sure The Bride Test will as well. It’s funny, it’s steamy, it’s got some quality commentary about minority experiences. Esme’s situation (well, before the mail-order bride bit) feels plausible and worth the attention it receives here, as does Khai’s. Matt and Stella are given a couple of honorable mentions that’ll please past Hoang readers, and despite my criticisms, I am still completely on board for the next novel in this series, which looks to be Quan’s chance to shine. (It is not necessary to read the entire series or to read these books in any particular order, though of course you’ll not catch the references to previous MCs if you haven’t read the earlier books.)

All in all, there’s plenty to recommend about The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient, and even if they aren’t perfect, they’re a step in the right direction for the genre (and literature) as a whole; I’m so excited to see more authors jump on this trend in the future and make this genre more inclusive and irresistable. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying with Hoang.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an incredibly quick read for me; even in the moments I completely disagreed with what was happening, I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m sure parts of it will stick with me, but I’m also glad I decided to check this one out from the library instead of purchasing immediately. I’m really looking forward to the Quan book, though! Before that one hits shelves, next up for me in romance will probably be Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, but I’ll warn anyone anticipating my review of it that it might be a while before I pick it up, simply because I’m not a frequent romance reader.

What’s your favorite romance novel? Have you read either of Helen Hoang’s books? I’d love to know what you thought!

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 6.10.19

Top of the TBR is a new series I’m starting with the intent of it eventually replacing my book hauls. Since my TBR goal for this year is tied to the new books I’m buying throughout the year, I will (probably) still be mentioning new titles I’ve acquired each month for a while yet. But by the end of the year, Top of the TBR should have completely replaced those book hauls. (See my first Top of the TBR post for more info on why I’m making this switch.)

But what is Top of the TBR? Good question. It’s a weekly post that will showcase any new books I’ve added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post; in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

38463If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (Pub: 1974)

How I found it: I’ve been hearing quite a bit about this book surrounding its recent film release, but I finally ended up adding it after Grab the Lapels recommended it based on my thoughts about An American Marriage.

Why I added it: It sounds like this one focuses more on injustice and social commentary than a dramatic love triangle; in essence, it sounds like everything I wanted from An American Marriage but didn’t quite find there.

Priority: Low. I don’t have a copy on hand and I just reread An American Marriage. I’m not sure yet when I’ll pick this one up, but I do know I’ll probably want to watch the film at the same time.

7756979Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Pub: Jan 2010)

How I found it: Also recommended to me by Grab the Lapels, same situation.

Why I added it: Basically all of my prison knowledge comes from a few scattered pieces of fiction, and the TV series Orange is the New Black; this looks like it’ll be a nice overview from the inside, from a nonfiction perspective. I’ve been so interested in true crime lately that this seems like a good adjacent read.

Priority: Middling. I am planning to read more nonfiction this summer, and even though my list is overly full already it’s possible that I might decide to pick this one up as well.

32073130Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash (Pub: July 2017)

How I found it: I read Callum’s highly intriguing review!

Why I added it: It’s hard to say just what exactly is appealing to me here, but there’s a specific brand of “weirdness” that just works so well for me that I think I’ll find in this one. A “three-way relationship,” an identity crisis, obsession, pain vs. pleasure… the synopsis is full of what seems like perfect ingredients.

Priority: High. My TBR is way too full to keep spontaneously letting new-to-me titles skip ahead of the line, but I’ve been struggling lately to find 5-star reads that really excite me so I want to make sure I’m reaching for more of the surprising and odd books that I think have a chance at breaking the cycle.

34019105Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (Pub: Feb 2017)

How I found it: Rachel mentioned this title briefly in her recent ARCs post; her focus was mainly on the author’s newest (upcoming) release, but Dead Letters had been on my radar since it was included as a BOTM selection in 2017 and that small mention was just enough to finally convince me to give this one a chance.

Why I added it: A set of twins, an uncertain death, family secrets? Sign me up. Better late than never. I’ve not had a great relationship with mystery/thrillers lately, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up completely.

Priority: Middling. Summer and fall are my best times of year for this sort of story, and since I don’t have many lined up yet. I can see myself getting to this before the end of the year, but you know what they say about good intentions.

40718354The Fire Starters by Jan Carson (Pub: Apr 2019)

How I found it: I read Rachel’s lovely review!

Why I added it: Rachel has great taste and I agree with her more often than not. Also, this just sounds really good! Two fathers who can’t trust their children, mysterious fires, Irish setting, community strife, magical element? I’m there. (If you’re not there yet, definitely check out Rachel’s review!)

Priority: High. This sounds like such a unique and compelling read, and might help me cross back into 5-star territory!

42201100Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I read Elle’s wonderful review! (Clearly this has been a good week for recommendations, even if they weren’t specifically aimed at me…)

Why I added it: This is a feminist nonfiction book about three women in particular, with desire as a common theme. The synopsis calls the book: “a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power.” Hell yes.

Priority: High. This one’s on my summer nonfiction list for sure. I’ve already got a hold on this title through my library.

38359002The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Pub: June  2018)

How I found it: I don’t remember. This one’s been on my list for months, and just got bumped up because I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it this week. (Still ongoing!) There’s always one.

Why I added it: I have not yet read anything from Tremblay, but I do like horror and suspense and have been meaning to give some of his work a go. I don’t remember any specifics about the synopsis, but the title succeeds at catching my attention every single time I come across it.

Priority: Middling. Hopefully I’ll get to this one in October, when I like to focus on spooky reads.

20702408A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Pub: Sept 2014)

How I found it: This one’s been on my radar for a while, as a previous Women’s Prize Winner, though I hadn’t looked into it very thoroughly until this week.

Why I added it: I’ve been meaning to read some of McBride’s work, and I have her The Lesser Bohemians on my TBR already; I usually stick to one book per author on my TBR at a time, then add another after finishing the first if I’m still interested at that point. But I’ve been chatting about a potential buddy read of this one with some Women’s Prize friends so I want to keep it in mind.

Priority: High. I believe this will be happening in July, so I’m planning to pick up my library’s copy then.

408888A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (Pub: Jan 1995)

How I found it: I had to give this one a second look during my recent scroll through previous Women’s Prize winners.

Why I added it: This was the first ever Women’s Prize winner, in 1996 (back when it was the Orange Prize). This looks like historical (Gothic) fiction, featuring an intense sibling relationship complicated by family secrets and the woman’s “dark present and haunting past.” The synopsis on Goodreads doesn’t give much away, but I do enjoy dark and mysterious and odd family dynamics, so this sounds right up my alley.

Priority: Low. I would love to read more Women’s Prize winners, but having just reread this year’s winner and with plans to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing already in the works, this one’s on the back burner.

53101Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Pub: 1936)

How I found it: I just read Barnes’s inclusion in the Faber Stories collection, The Lydia Steptoe Stories, and went looking through more of Barnes’s oeuvre.

Why I added it: It was hard to tell from Lydia Steptoe whether this was going to be an author that I would appreciate more broadly (the stories in that volume were so short!), but the synopsis of this one sounds like it’ll tick some of the same boxes for me that Lydia Steptoe did, so I think it’s worth a try. Goodreads says this novel “unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe’s great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna- a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous,” which sounds wonderful.

Prioirity: Low. I’m really curious about this, but I’m not in a hurry. I think that’s getting to be the common catchphrase for me in these posts, but with 600+ books on my Goodreads TBR I just can’t get to everything immediately.

 

With exactly ten titles added over the last week, that’s a wrap. I’m really excited about basically all of these, so don’t be surprised to see reviews for some of the titles mentioned start popping up!

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

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: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Women Talking

I’ve been anticipating Miriam Toews’s Women Talking for months, and in the wake of 1000+ pages of George R. R. Martin‘s writing I was in desperate need of some feminism. Women Talking, along with Mary Beard’s Women & Power (which I’ll talk about more in my month wrap-up) gave me exactly what I needed.

womentalkingIn the novel, a handful of women from the Mennonite colony of Molotschna gather secretly in a hay loft to discuss a response to the men that have raped them. The eight men who stand accused of making nightly visits to women of all ages in the colony- subduing them with an anesthetic spray  and then raping them while they lie unconscious in their beds- are being held in the city jail, away from Molotschna. Others from the community have gone to post bail and bring them home pending trial. The women know they will be asked to forgive these men and carry on as usual; refusing forgiveness would mean- according to bishop Peters- being barred from heaven for the hatred they harbor.

“A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.”

It would be easy to make an argument that this book presents as fiction for feminism newbies. The Molotschnan women have been cut off from the rest of the world- they are even made to speak a dead language that prevents them from communicating with anyone outside of their own religion- and thus are coming to the idea of gender equality as though it’s a radical revolution. All facets of this concept are new to them, or at least new as a topic of discussion outside their own private thoughts, and thus all sides of the issue are laid out simply and in great detail. To consider disobeying the men of their community is indeed an act of rebellion. The women laugh at the prospect of asking for more rights and protections because they know these desires will be stamped down without any fair consideration. Such is life in Molotschna.

“She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.”

What keeps the story from feeling behind the times or too basic is the specific combination of rapes and religion in this limited environment. In an introductory statement, Toews mentions a real-life case of Bolivian colony women who were subjected to similar mysterious attacks as recently as 2009. Beyond the outrage of such a parallel is the necessary consideration that the men in this equation are husbands, brothers, sons, and long-time acquaintances of the women. They have been raised to value non-violence and forgiveness, to such an extent that they believe retaliating will cost them their souls. This is no straightforward discussion about taking revenge against evil men, but an exploration of the community hierarchy that birthed such a situation, without disregarding the fact that these women have been conditioned to believe that fighting the system could mean eternal damnation, a fate they actively fear.

Women Talking takes a philosophical approach to this one unique case of injustice, through which many broader statements can be more generally applied. It is at heart an examination of faith and the self- what each woman is willing to do or sacrifice for what she believes she deserves- rather than a condemnation of men or religion outright.

“Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals.

But not all men, says Mejal.

Ona clarifies: Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

If you’re looking for plot, you won’t find it here; the title tells it true- almost the entire book consists of a handful of women talking through their options across two days of meetings. Because the women can’t write, they entrust one man with the task of keeping minutes for the meeting- he is our narrator. He goes on many tangents, makes his own assumptions, and in the end manages to skew the process of recording the minutes to seem a project entirely about himself, all of which contributes to the sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness these women must be experiencing.

The format and general lack of action happening on the page will likely alienate some readers, but I found it a beautiful, insightful look at a problematic power structure, which paired nicely with Beard’s nonfiction lectures/essays in Women & Power. I found myself outraged and emotional over many of the story’s details (there are so many infractions I haven’t mentioned in this review), and devoured both books in one sitting.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though a bit too short and beginner-friendly to pack the full 5-star punch for me, I did find this little book an absorbing change of pace. Everything about it fit so seamlessly together, and I loved the way that this piece of fiction reflects/addresses a real-life catastrophe in a way that gives voice to silenced women. I may pick up more from Toews in the future, but I was more interested in this specific concept and book than the author’s work more broadly at the moment; Women Talking was exactly what I wanted it to be, but… I’m fine with it ending here for now. Feel free to drop suggestions if you think there’s another Toews book I’m missing out on, though!

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 4

I’ve just read another handful of Faber Stories and am ready to share my thoughts on them with you! I’ve now read 14 of the 20 stories in this 2019 collection, 4 of which I’ll be talking about below. If you’re interested in checking out more of these reviews, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of my mini-review series.

faberstories4

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. 3 stars. 

Most of the Faber Stories are set it America, the UK, or Ireland (which corresponds perfectly with the fact that these countries are home to most of the authors). I picked up this one because it is set in Zimbabwe.

The synopsis tells us that the Queen is coming to Harare, and so everything unsightly must be swept under the rug. This includes an overabundance of citizens, who are relocated to a temporary town called Easterly Farm, which is quickly overrun by poverty. The story follows in particular one woman in Easterly who has “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy.”

I found this an engaging and worthwhile story from start to finish, but was not surprised to discover that it is only a small piece from a larger collection: a set of short stories by Gappah published under the same title in 2009. This single story sticks closely to the pregnant woman- including those who help her and those her hurt her, and those who only want to gape and jeer. Though I did find her story interesting and complete in itself, it is only a snapshot of a larger picture that I found more intriguing than the vague background provided as setting info here. I think I might’ve benefitted more from reading the entire collection by Gappah rather than this one story alone, as it left me feeling as though something were missing.

“All the women who walk alone at night are prostitutes, the government said- lock them up, the Queen is coming.”

The Country Funeral by John McGahern. 3 stars. 

This story, originally published in 1992, features three Irish brothers who travel back to their mother’s childhood home for their uncle’s funeral. I tend to like morbid tales that brush against death, and indeed the brothers’ reactions to the loss of their uncle are complex and compelling. The best aspect, in my opinion, is that the change in perspective that each brother undergoes throughout the course of this story also runs parallel to shifting power dynamics between the siblings.

The downside (depending on the sort of reader that you are) is that this story is largely a character study and thus has very little plot. While I did find each of the brothers interesting and enjoyed seeing their late uncle through the snippets of dialogue they share amongst themselves and the other mourners, I must admit that there were moments of boredom for me. I do tend to like character studies and don’t often need much plot, but following them through the planning and hosting of this funeral just wasn’t quite enough of a hook for me.

The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. 4 stars. 

Also set in Ireland, The Forester’s Daughter gives us another look at the workings of one family. Here also we have scant plot- a man gives his daughter a dog that he did not buy, whose owner wants him back.

Though in some ways similar to the previous story, I found this one immediately gripping and would’ve enjoyed it taking up dozens more pages than it did. The prose is straightforward, but Keegan uses it well; each character is unique, their personalities and motivations simultaneously tying them together and pitting them against one another, the ending inevitable but nevertheless fascinating. It could have gone no other way, but Keegan lays out each step of this journey masterfully to create an adventure worth taking.

My only disappointment is that in a narrative brimming with distinct and well-explored characters, the titular daughter felt completely unknown to me. Though her feelings are less significant to the story than her parents’ reactions to her feelings, it still felt odd to me that such a central character would be left so open to the imagination. She’s described as very smart and rather quirky, but I never had any idea what made her tick, beyond the typical childlike desire for approval and affection. She could have been drawn to much greater affect, though I still enjoyed this story immensely.

“Before a year had passed the futility of married life had struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single.”

Mr Salary by Sally Rooney. 4 stars.

A reread; I talked about my first impression of this one briefly in my January wrap-up, after reading it online because I was too impatient to order a copy. I loved the story enough to want my own copy and to start over with it again not long after its arrival.

In this story, a woman returns to Ireland to visit her dying father in the hospital. In the midst of a morbid fascination with mortality, she also reconsiders her relationship with the man (a sort of family friend) who’s housing her. Very little actually happens as the characters shuffle from one scene to the next, and none of them seem to understand (if they’re even aware of) their own emotions. The joy- as with any Rooney piece- comes in piecing together the unsaid from the characters’ movements and dialogue. Rooney’s stories are delightful puzzles for the reader to assemble, all the more interesting for the fact that the outcome will not look the same for every reader. In fact, I had an entirely different impression of the ending this time around than I did in my previous reading only a few months ago. It’s impressive how much Rooney can evoke in the reader’s heart and mind in just a few short pages- how interactive an experience her writing is.

Overall thoughts: I didn’t realize quite how Irish this batch was turning out to be when I made my selections, but I certainly don’t mind. All said, this was a pretty solid group; nothing really disappointed me, I still loved Mr Salary, and The Forester’s Daughter was a pleasant surprise that I highly recommend. I might give the full collection of An Elegy for Easterly a try at some point, and I’d be very interested in reading more from Keegan. I wasn’t sure whether I would keep going with the collection after this batch, but I haven’t read anything yet that’s left me with the impression that I won’t enjoy the rest of the Faber Stories, so I suppose there will be another round of mini-reviews in a few weeks!

Have you read any of the stories from this collection? Which has been your favorite?

 

The Literary Elephant