Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Name is Leon-Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon-Kit de Waal

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 254
gender: F
nationality: UK, of color
year: 2016
novel

Carol has not taken the birth of her new child, Leon's perfect baby brother, well. After Leon attempts to run the household at age 10, social services comes into play. And the brothers will not be staying together.

A gut punch to your crying gland is how I'd describe this book. I tend to find child narrators off putting and Leon seems simultaneously a bit young for his age and a bit too precocious but de Waal kept me there-breaking my heart. The foster system in any country is a heartbreaking place but it's certainly worse for kids of color. Leon clearly lacks the privilege of his beloved baby brother in far too many ways-as a white infant, his brother could be adopted out right away (especially in the UK) while Leon is a brown skinned older child well on his way to becoming the "threatening black man" who haunts our media though he has no consciousness of his 'otherness'. Thus, as a novel about the system, unlikely guardians, racial injustice, and grief, de Waal has tackled a lot of very heavy topics in a way that really hurts. Leon's grief, the well-meaning administrators and the very presence of hope if he could recognize it are all the heavy center of the novel and are well-done. The ending is a charming happy ending in which, finally, someone appreciates Leon for who he is-not as he is perceived to be.
However, the more peripheral section/second half of the novel in which Leon meets random men at the allotments is a little more obscure and confusing. What we are supposed to think about these men? The incorporation of the 60s racial unrest seemed a little clunky since Leon's viewpoint is so self-centered.  There was something just a bit off about Leon's characterization (the hoarding for the future vs the utter childlike inability to judge the intent of others) as well as the not-so-well developed new characters which threatened the novel's cohesion.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Girls-Emma Cline

The Girls-Emma Cline

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 355
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Summer of '69, Evie Boyd is jolted out of the stupor of her adolescence by the shining Suzanne who pulls her into the sphere of a cult.


Everyone has read this novel* and it is yet another of the dangerous young girls trope so popular lately. I'll sum up my feelings about that trope as follows: overdone and usually poorly concluded. Here it's coupled with my absolute least favorite decade. I'm aware that I have an almost knee jerk revulsion to the 60s-70s and it's very unhealthy for my blood pressure so if you like the 60s-70s, please don't continue reading because you will not agree with me about anything-I don't even like the Brady Bunch. I primarily despise the exaltation of what is a very toxic patriarchal masculinity that permeates so much of what is written/filmed about these decades. Ok, so this deep felt hatred for the 60s in my case actually is sustained by this book. Here Cline almost seems to agree with me. All the men in this book are universally obscene-sexually permeate asides to the real heart of the book, the girls-which is kind exactly how I feel about the decades...I also liked Cline's prose. The language is strange at times and bluntly crude in description but it works (as well as contributing to the overall obscenity of the men's actions).
I honestly am unsure about why I finished this book. I, like every morbid teenage girl, know quite a bit about the Manson murders (the reason I picked this book up) so I knew, immediately, what was going on and what was going to happen so maybe part of what spurred me on was the tension filled build to the conclusion I was expecting. But this in part was broken by the odd narrative structure of the 60s Evie who is busy being swept up into something super weird by her obsession with Suzanne and the aimless adult Evie who is dealing with a stranger girl teenager in thrall to a boy teenager and is reminiscing about the worst thing she ever did. (This is what annoys me so.much. about this dangerous young girls trope.) Adult Evie is ineffectual and I feel like Cline could've removed her except that of course not, because the lesson is that teenage girls can make such bad mistakes, in the 60s as well as nowadays. (Barf.) 60s Evie was much more evocative and compelling (or maybe it was Suzanne who was).
But still, many points to Cline for her prose which was not floaty in the least but in your face and kept me reading despite all the things I hated about what she was talking about.

*I want to link to a spectacular review which interpreted the Girls from a more race-centric view. I found it fascinating and considering that this book about the 60s, a turbulent decade for American race culture, is so white-centric, it's a necessary read.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Course of Love-Alain de Botton

The Course of Love-Alain de Botton

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 240
gender: M
nationality: Switzerland
year: 2016
novel

Alain de Botton trains his philosophy on the arch of a romantic relationship between Rabih and Kristen.


I so, so, so, so wanted to love this novel. I adored On Love/Essays on Love and that kind of was my gateway drug to the sometimes strange and iffy but always accessible philosophy of de Botton and friends. It's so rare that a novel will get you to read non fiction but that is what Essays on Love did for me. The Course of Love would not have done that. I don't even really fully understand why. I mean, this is a premise I can really get behind: love, relationships take a lot of work and you'll actually never get to know another person fully. So I recognized much of what de Botton is saying as true. I guess, part of it was the format? de Botton writes about Rabih and Kristen with a sort of clinical distance. They were merely a case study being discussed as part of a pedantic conference paper. Like you could replace Rabih and Kristen with pieces of pottery, add some concepts like "signalling" or whatever and you wouldn't lose any warmth and humanity. (I actually did this for some passages because I was procrastinating actually writing a conference paper...and it worked.) So, I felt like it was written in a way that was so alienating. There was also a bit of a lack of attention to the two cultures in questions-the differences in culture were relegated to asides (deeply pedantically anthropological in tone-I know from experience) and that detracted from an excellent point. Despite their disparate geographical origins, they were both damaged but love, reflection, and work brought them together.
I finished this novel disappointed-a victim to my high expectations and nostalgia. High scores for the message, let down by the delivery.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Abundance-Annie Dillard

The Abundance-Annie Dillard

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 304
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
narrative non fiction

A collection (both old and new) of essays and narrative non fiction from Pulitzer winner Annie Dillard.


There're quite a lot of different topics in here-seemingly the main thread connecting them is Dillard herself. The only other thread might be landscapes as many of the essays involved nature/landscape imagery. As a collection, this is not cohesive, at all. I've actually never read Dillard's writing (that I remember) and I suspect this was not the best introduction I could have sought. My overall feeling is that of ambivalence. On the one hand, the prose is amazing-rich and evocative and heartfelt- but on the other hand many of the essays were...maybe they were too metaphysical. I got a sense that there was such an effort being expended on making them metaphysical that it was too much for me and thus it never 'spoke' to me. Other essays had very overt Christian themes and imagery which is not for me personally. Overall, I ended up feeling like there was no need to deconstruct anything as fully as Dillard does. I am in a minority opinion here....
And then there are the one or two essays that I found to be amazing. I was upset they were short and Dillard wasn't lavishing her prose further on this topic. Not surprising to me, they were mostly ones that were more memoir-like than the rest so I feel like I'd mostly enjoy a Dillard memoir.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not Working-Lisa Owens

Not Working-Lisa Owens

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 256
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Claire has quit her office job in order to get a job she genuinely likes. This is not too easy.


Well, listen. Claire is not a lovable character. She has a singular lack of self-awareness and really needs to face up to her privilege. Seriously, she needs to check herself here. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book as a bit of light-hearted humor. This is written mostly like "chick-lit"-the perfect boyfriend, the parents, the general stable upper middle-class lifestyle, quirky/awkward narrator etc. But Owens handles this well with a wit and humor that resonated with me. Many of the things that Claire goes through, I also went through during the period of unemployment in my life so that probably contributes to my enjoyment of the book. Reading her fall into some of the same pitfalls and obstacles (and fail) was admittedly quite enjoyable. The style was also unusual for the genre-short and sweet anecdotes ranging in topics and never too long before we jump to anything else. If I were reading this for character development or whatever, this style wouldn't have been good but I found it perfect for my attention span and the character. Had they been longer I likely would have spent a lot more time despising Claire rather than the time I spent laughing at/with her. Not too bad for a quick, effortless read.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper-Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper-Phaedra Patrick

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 331
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Widowed Arthur Pepper discovers a charm bracelet that leads him on an adventure through the life of his late wife before she married him.


So, it turns out I'm a sucker for charming (/pun), vaguely outlandish novels with unexpected protagonists. Arthur Pepper is the kind of dull older man you'd expect him to be. He likes his routine, dislikes change, and is quite isolated especially since his wife died. Quite frankly, we've all met Arthur Peppers before-men who seem older than they are because they're quite stuck. Patrick, however, writes characters that you love anyway. His neighbors, normal people, all become lovable characters with Patrick's prose. And then, the premise, the mystery of it all, what was Miriam actually like? The abrupt but self-propelled jerk out of his comfort zone that brings Arthur walking on the side of the road to go to a ranch with tame tigers, at an art school, etc, all locations Arthur would not have been to on his own but rather is drawn to by his love for his wife. Heart-warming defines this novel perfectly. How did this vivacious adventurous woman end up married to him? Arthur Pepper ends up wondering and the answers are varied and utterly endearing. If you can read this novel without a smile ending up on your face, I suspect you don't have emotions. I'm sitting here writing this review with a pleased smile on my face just thinking of all the things Arthur went through. A perfect read for those grim weeks of overwork.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Shadow Hour-Kate Riordan

Shadow Hour-Kate Riordan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 525
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

At the behest of her grandmother, Grace goes to Fenix House to also be a governess to the Pembertons. However, not all is how she expected nor how it seems.

An enjoying atmospheric historical fiction to curl up with. Riordan has an enjoyable prose style and manages to rope in the period specific movements (like suffrage) despite the rural/manor setting in a way that felt quite natural. The novel is a bit darker than I expected at its start-it's not just that Grace discovers that her grandmother embroidered the truth, it's the truth that ends up being quite fascinating. The ending was well handled but hits on a pet peeve of mine. I will not be sharing it as it is a spoiler but despite my personal annoyance at it, it suits the book and so I wouldn't actually change it. My main issue with this book however is the sheer amount of coincidences and the utterly slow pace in the middle. The beginning and ending are well paced but for a 500 page book, the middle was tough going sometimes.

Then there was the utterly nagging deja vu feeling I felt while reading it. I actually, during the dragging bits in the middle, got sidetracked into researching exactly who Kate Riordan was, whether I'd read anything by her before, and I learned that yes. I had. The Girl in the Photograph. I was not imagining the similarities. If you liked Girl in the Photograph, you might enjoy Shadow Hour or you may, like me, find yourself comparing them. I felt that the dual narrative style worked better in the Girl in the Photograph because Shadow Hour had far too many coincidences (the pet peeve I have about dual narratives) but the atmosphere of Shadow Hour is just as good.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Girls on Fire-Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire-Robin Wasserman

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Hannah doesn't have many friends until Lacey comes to town and they bond over how much they hate the queen bee Nikki who is dealing with the suicide of her boyfriend Craig.

Sometimes I fear that reading new releases all in a row makes me into a hypercritical reader. The industry tends to have thematic groupings. There was the season of cults, the season of couples taking trips to nice places and now, the season of dangerous teenage girls. The first time I read this theme, I loved the premise. Usually teenage girls are either without agency or they're obsessed with popularity and/or boys. This season's teenage girls are instead those on the fringes, pretty much stuck there, and mostly pass the Bechdel test. They're mostly good girls who are just uncomfortable by the realization that eventually they have be women but there's always one or two 'dangerous' girls. Here is where the trope annoys me when in bulk.  The bad egg is almost always a new girl on the scene, someone from elsewhere, 8 times out of 10 they come from a broken family, and they are always platonically seductive. In this case, Lacey draws Hannah in by renaming her Dex. This is not actually the worst problem-the problem to me is that these stories are always end with the good girl staying good, that this was a misstep that'll haunt her forever, but in the end, life goes on and she is just like how she started but now won't make this mistake again. I'm not disputing life goes on, it does. What I'm disputing is this easy division of Hannah and Dex and post-Dex Hannah. There's an implication that Hannah will now grow up and consider this to be a small episode in her life as she is at heart a good girl. This really annoys me because these girls are me and I am who I am because I made mistakeS, because I expanded my horizons far beyond the boring suburb and got to know the damage the world creates early and while I could still recover. All of my friends are these girls and they are now bamf who are at home in their own skins because of our collective mistakes. We've got our scars but personally, I'd do them again to become the person I am.

I don't want to pick on this book but this was like the 8th "dangerous teen girls" book I read in the space of 2 months so I couldn't really enjoy it too much. Which is quite the shame because Wasserman really creates a great atmosphere here. There's almost a little bit of the mystery novel feel because what actually happened in the woods with Lacey and Craig. Why is Craig dead? The suspense building to the climax really sets this book apart. The 90s setting is great-Kurt Cobain and parental panics over devil worshipping feel authentic while not falling into the trap of feeling like a set piece. Equally authentic is the self-centric world of teenagehood-you hate this person and it genuinely feels like they are singling you personally to bully. At the same time, Nikki was a bit of a stereotype of the "dead inside" popular girl type which also annoys me. So on the one hand, you get most of the book from Hannah/Dex's narration which I liked but you also had this twisted plot line with Nikki and the occasional viewpoint from the parents which I found condescending.

But really, this is such a harsh feeling review because of the pervasive nature of this trope lately. I'm almost certain that had I read this book some other year, I'dve ended up loving it. The prose is great, the suspense and pacing is well handled and it felt authentic in an undefinable way.

In conclusion:
The soundtrack to my own adolescent years and also to Lacey's if she'd realize there were other bands than Nirvana and to Dex.