Author: priscilla

Reader’s Journal: Mini Reviews

I’ve been terrible keeping up with sharing my thoughts about what I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d try to get back in the swing of things with a couple of posts of mini reviews (although bear with me, because I read these back in June and July, and it seems like a long time ago).

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Let me start with this: SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t read this book and you do not already know the twist, then read no further. This is Rosemary Cooke’s story, and the story of her family, in particular her two siblings, her brother Lowell and her sister Fern. For different reasons, Rosemary is estranged from her siblings, all because of a single childhood act perpetrated by Rosemary. The story is told by present-day Rosemary in her forties, looking back both to her childhood with Fern and to several weeks in college where Rosemary learned what actually happened to Fern after she disappeared. Fern’s absence shaped much of Rosemary’s life, as did her reappearance. The clincher (the spoiler)—and I knew this going in: Fern is a chimpanzee that the Cooke family was raising alongside Rosemary as her sister. Fowler tells a hell of a story, but she also manages to weave in much of the relevant information about chimpanzee studies over the last century to help the reader understand the real depth of the questions at hand. It’s such a wonderfully strange book, and Rosemary is a compelling narrator. For all the ethical issues it raises (and never, ever beats the reader about the head with), this is finally a family saga, and an incredibly well-written one at that. If Fowler wins the Man-Booker, she will definitely have earned it.

StonerStoner, John Williams. If you love quiet, character-driven fiction about ordinary people that reveals deeper truths about humanity (think of works by Kent Haruf or Marilynne Robinson), then Stoner is an absolute must-read. William Stoner is the son of a Missouri farmer who sends Stoner away to join a new agriculture program at the state university. In his second year of school, Stoner falls in love with literature, and decides to pursue a life in academia. The book tells the story of his life at the university, his struggles with colleagues and students, his unhappy marriage, his experience of fatherhood. It’s beautifully written, revealing the deep complexity of even a seemingly simple life.

The Care and Feeding of Exotic PetsThe Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, Diana Wagman. This is one of those books I bought on sale, on a whim. I had a long plane trip and had just finished another book, so I decided to give this a shot. I managed to finish it over the course of a five hour plane ride and an hour on the train. Winnie Parker is a single mother to a teenage daughter. She’s recently divorced from her game-show host husband. Waiting at the car repair shop for a loaner car, she mistakes a young man who pulls over to pick her up as the guy from the rental car place. Instead, she finds herself kidnapped by the young man and taken to the house he shares with a giant iguana named Cookie. The story is told in alternating third-person points of view, so we see events not just from Winnie’s point of view, but also from the kidnapper’s, her daughter’s, and her ex-husband’s, as we come to understand what set off this increasingly horrifying chain of events for Winnie. Reviews for this one seem to be all over the place (but mostly favorable), but I was completely absorbed. It helps that Wagman has a sense of humor, and many of the moments are darkly comic; otherwise, this well-paced novel might have teetered between melodrama and just plain terrifying. If you like Gillian Flynn, then I recommend this. I look forward to checking out Wagman’s other books.

*all images and links from Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday: Character-Driven Novels

For today’s Tuesday Top 10 (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), participants have been asked to list their favorite character-driven novels. Since character-driven novels are pretty much all I ever read, I could just point you to any of my year-end favorite posts and say, “Have at it,” but what fun would that be? It’s difficult for me to only pick ten, but I’ll give it a shot:

Benediction, Kent Haruf. All of Haruf’s works are character driven, and while my favorite of his is probably Plainsong, this particular novel really wrenched my heart.

Benediction Cover
Texasville, Larry McMurtry. This novel (part two of the Thalia Trilogy) revisits some of the cast of The Last Picture Show, 33 years later. Set during the 1980s Texas oil bust, it’s both funny and melancholy.

Texasville (Thalia Trilogy) Cover
In the Woods, Tana French. I could have picked any of French’s books, but I decided to pick her first one because it was the first one I read and it was also the first time I felt like everything I love about literary fiction had been married to everything that’s great about suspense.

In the woods.jpg
Straight Man, Richard Russo. Again, I could have picked any of Russo’s books, but this is one of my favorite books of all time. If you like books about father-son relationships or dry-witted academics (among other things), then pick it up ASAP.


Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam. This one is not for the faint of heart, but Nadzam does such an amazing job showing what’s going on inside the head of David Lamb that it’s both frightening and mesmerizing.

Lamb Cover
Canada, Richard Ford. When Dell Parson’s parents are arrested for robbing a bank, he is estranged from his twin sister and exiled to Canada, where he works for a man with a dark secret. I read this on a whim and loved every second of it.

CanadaNovel.jpg
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are assassins sent to kill a man who has invented a way to discover and steal gold from their boss. It’s a love story about two brothers, it’s a Western, and it’s darkly and awesomely funny.

Thesistersbrotherscover.jpg
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. What if your best friend disappeared? What if you had defined yourself around that disappearance, and then you learned it might not be true? This is an unusual coming-of-age story that I thoroughly intend to read again.

You Are One of Them Cover
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. this is more a novel in stories, all which center around the central character of Olive Kitteridge, who lives in Crosby, Maine. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of the relatives and townspeople who know her.

Olive-kitteridge l.jpg
The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. I’m big on stories about sad-sacks with big dreams. Russell Harmon is getting ready for his dart league to play its final championship game of the season, and he’s banking on more than a trophy if he wins. This book has so much more than meets the eye, and I wish I could get it into the hands of more people.

The Dart League King Cover

*images and links from powells.com and Wikipedia

Freestyle Friday: Are You Going to See Gone Girl?

Gone Girl (Flynn novel).jpgUPDATE: This post does contain spoilers–not plot points or the ending, but information about the characters that might be a tip off.

I am. I am going to go see it. So far, I have only read two reviews. Linda Homes at NPR liked it very much; Manohla Dargis at The New York Times not as much. I don’t really care either way about the reviews—mainly I’m just interested to see how they could turn this book into a movie. I don’t have high expectations, but with Gillian Flynn’s screenplay and David Fincher’s direction, I don’t expect it so suck, either.

The thing that really shocked me was the vitriol in the comments section on the review in The New York Times. Not all of you loved (or even liked) the book. But even with that, I don’t think that many of you would say that Gillian Flynn is a misogynist for creating the character of Amy. That seems to be the consensus on The New York Times. One man in the comments section of Dargis’s review went so far as to say that he would not be surprised if ten years from now he learned that Gillian Flynn had a sex-change operation to become a man, because clearly that’s how much she hates herself and how much she hates women.

Interestingly, most of the comments about Flynn being a misogynist are written by men, but several of the women (and Dargis herself, in her review) point out that Nick almost comes off as sympathetic in the film because of the way it’s structured (apparently Nick’s scenes are all third-person, while Amy’s story is told from her first-person view through voice-over). But let’s face it: if Flynn had made Nick less sympathetic, if she’d made him more of a villain, she’d be called a man-hater, and instead she’d be receiving comments that in ten years, we will be likely to hear that she’s murdered her husband and son because she hates men so much.

I am consistently amazed at the myopic, mean-spirited behavior of some people. It’s perfectly fine not to like a book or movie—there are plenty I don’t like—but to call Flynn a misogynist just smacks of the worst kind of sexism. Guess what? There are some batshit crazy women out there. And there are some men who are real assholes. But if you are a woman, be careful that you only write about…what? What kind of women?

Hang on, let me go ask my husband…

Okay, my husband says women are allowed to write about:

  • Nice mommies
  • Girls who really, really want to get married
  • Girls who really like shoes and shopping
  • Wives of historical figures, as long as we don’t make their husbands look bad

My husband says women are NOT allowed to write about:

  • Mean mommies
  • Girls who want careers and not marriage
  • Girls who don’t want children
  • Girls who do violent things
  • Girls with psychological problems
  • Girls in bad marriages because that might make men look bad

Okay, so we’re all clear on the rules now. We can all go buy some shoes and enjoy our weekends!

Happy Friday.

Top 10 Authors I’ve Read Once but Want to Read Again

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

Charles Portis. True Grit is one of my favorite books. I own both The Dog of the South and Norwood. No reason not to read them, right? Ha.

True Grit.jpg

Carol Shields. She’s another terrific Canadian author (along with Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and Mavis Gallant), and if you’ve read The Stone Diaries, you know how good it is. It won the Pulitzer in 1995. I have her novel Unless on my shelf (sitting next to the aforementioned Norwood and The Dog of the South, of course).

Stonediariesbookcover.jpg

Ali Smith. I read The Accidental back in 2009 and have always meant to pick up more of her work. I’d like to pick up one of her story collections, and her book of essays Artful.

Accidental.jpg

Laurie R. King. I really enjoyed The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which starts the Mary Russell series. (I think it’s a well-established fact on this blog that I am terrible at reading series.) I loved the way King writes and enjoyed Mary as a heroine, and I’d love to go along on more of her adventures. I also have a copy of The Bones of Paris waiting for me (which I realize is the second in a series, and no, I haven’t read the first one).

Beekeeper's Apprentice.jpg

Colm Toíbín. I loved Brooklyn—I felt like I was in the hands of a master storyteller who can craft a beautifully simple, artful tale. Lucky me, I have an early copy of his latest novel, Nora Webster (pub. October 7) to read in the next few weeks.

Brooklyn Colm Toibin.jpg

John Banville.  I’ve read The Sea, and I have several of his books on my wish list, including The Infinities and the mystery Christine Falls (penned as Benjamin Black).

The Sea John Banville.jpg

Iain Pears. Stone’s Fall is probably one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past five years. Right after I read it I bought a used copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost,  which I still have yet to read. I’m also intrigued by his Jonathan Argyll series—a mystery series involving an art historian! (And yeah, a series.)

Stone's Fall cover.jpeg

A.S. Byatt. I read The Children’s Book several years ago, and have always wanted to read her other well-known work, Possession. Given how long it took me to read The Children’s Book (no fault of the book, I just kept stopping to look up references), I suspect I’ll need to be ready to commit to a long haul. (An a completely unrelated note, The Children’s Book wins my vote for prettiest cover.)

TheChildrensBook.jpg

J.G. Farrell. A while back I joined a blogging series called Spotlight Series, where we were given the option to review volumes from the New York Review of Books Classics Series. I chose The Siege of Krishnapur. Of course, that book is part of a series, the Empire Trilogy (told you it was a well-established fact about me and series). I bought the first book, Troubles, sometime last year, and you know the rest.

SiegeOfKrishnapur.JPG

Ron Rash. I read Serena last year. Rash is a storyteller of dark Appalachian tales. I’ve been dying to pick up his latest short story collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay. I’ve almost bought it several times, but for some reason I’ve managed to show actual restraint.

Serena, a novel by Ron Rash.jpg

*All images and links from Wikipedia or Powells. Links are unaffiliated.

Freestyle Friday 9.5.2014

I bought two books this week, and I almost bought a third. I know that shouldn’t be a big deal, but I have so many unread books. And then I have this other problem, which is that I bought two novels, when I have this sudden urge to read non-fiction. And then I have yet another problem, which is that I still have a (virtual) stack of review copies to get through, after my summer book request frenzy.

(Oh, you want to know what I bought? Okay.)

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpgThe Shining Girls

(What…now you want to know what I almost bought, but didn’t? Alright.)

allthelight

(Wait. Should I get it?)

Only Lovers Left Alive poster.jpgWe watched not one but two movies last weekend. Lately we seem to be much more into watching television shows. (Our latest is Veep. Very funny. I see now why Julia Louis Dreyfus keeps winning the Emmy.) One I highly recommend is Jim Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers Left Alive, which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a married vampire couple. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s warm and hopeful. It also has the best suitcase-packing scene ever.

Palo Alto.jpgThe other movie we watched was Palo Alto. Couple of things on this one: First, this movie is based on James Franco’s short stories, which I haven’t read, but judging by the movie I suspect they are your standard MFA stuff. Second, this movie is directed by Gia Coppola, who is Sofia Coppola’s cousin. I happen to enjoy Sofia Coppola’s films very much, but that doesn’t mean I want to see a knockoff. Emma Roberts basically plays a younger version of Charlotte from Lost in Translation (wardrobe, attitude, all of it, and to be fair, she does a good job), and the movie is full of cinematography meant to evoke melancholy while the airy soundtrack plays in the background, á la The Virgin Suicides. It’s pretty, but better done elsewhere.

I am pretty sure Jillian Michaels is trying to kill me. Well, let me rephrase that: I am pretty sure she’s out to kill anyone who uses her workout videos. Or then again, it could just be that I am out of shape. I’ve been doing her Shred video. It’s only a 20 minute workout, and it combines strength, cardio, and abs. Nonstop. I’ll keep doing these, but I admit I’ll be very happy when Mother Nature realizes it is actually September (and not early August) and decides to cool things down so I can run outside. It’s not the heat itself, but the fact that I spend 10 minutes putting on sunscreen that basically melts off after I’ve been running for 30 seconds.

This week I wrote a review of a book by a well-regarded author. I wasn’t so crazy about the book, and then I read a review of that same book in The Washington Post where the reviewer loved the book. The reviewer made some fine points I agree with and forgot to mention, but overall I still feel sort of meh about it. The thing is, now I feel lame for feeling meh. Does this ever happen to any of you? Do you ever feel bad for not agreeing with a professional reviewer, particularly one you respect? I don’t respect the reviewer any less for liking said book, but I may respect myself less. I’ll post the review next week.

Happy Friday, everyone!

*All images from Wikipedia

The Secret Place

Faithful Place USIn all the frenzy surrounding pub day for David Mitchell’s much anticipated The Bone Clocks, not much has been said that September 2 is also pub day for Tana French’s fifth installment in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, The Secret Place. I pre-ordered my copy months ago, but I was also lucky enough to snag an early copy from NetGalley for review. I should probably go ahead and admit my bias (although I guess I already did, by telling you I ordered the book early), but I loved all four of her previous books, so I was already inclined to give this one a positive review. Lucky me, because it isn’t just my bias talking—this book deserves all the positive reviews it’s receiving. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few bumps, but nothing bad enough to distract or derail enjoyment.

Detective Stephen Moran gets a visit out of the blue from 16-year-old Holly Mackey, who has possible information about a murder at a posh girls’ boarding school (one she attends) called St. Kilda’s. Holly was still a child when Detective Moran last saw her (in Faithful Place, the third book in the series), and he believes she is bringing him information now because of a fundamental trust that was established years before. The information Holly brings him is about a murder case that was considered solved by an outcast Murder Squad detective Antoinette Conway. Detective Moran wants to help Holly, but even more, he knows that the information she has brought him gives him a shot at getting out of cold cases and onto the Murder Squad. The problem is that Detective Conway has a reputation for being difficult to work with, so she could easily take the evidence and try to solve the case on her own—and if she doesn’t, by association Detective Moran could end up the partner of the department pariah.

In the present, Holly has brought Detective Moran a postcard with a picture of Chris Harper and some anonymous hint that someone has information about what really happened. Holly swiped the card from a bulletin board at the school that the girls call The Secret Place, where they can anonymously share their innermost feelings, thoughts, and frustrations (the school’s headmistress seems to believe this will stop the girls from airing those things in more public forums on the Internet). The scenes with Detectives Moran and Conway, narrated in first person by Moran, alternate with scenes that flash back to more than a year ago at St. Kilda’s, when Chris was still alive. Those scenes are offered in limited third-person through Holly and her three best friends, Julia, Serena, and Becca. Through them, we’re also introduced to Chris and his mates (they attend the brother school to St. Kilda’s) and their St. Kilda’s rivals, another clique of four girls who make The Plastics in Mean Girls look like Little Women. (French is not simply playing on bitchy stereotypes. Instead, she’s illuminating something about what it means, sometimes, to be a girl. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”)

The alternating narratives almost make The Secret Place feel like two books. In one storyline, we see Detective Moran trying to develop a relationship with the gritty, no-nonsense Conway. The present action takes place over the course of one day, which adds to the tension the reader feels. Detective Moran really does have only one shot at Murder, or he’s likely to end up on Cold Cases for the remainder of his career. More importantly, though, is what he tells the reader about Conway, how he presents her skills, how he explains what he believes she’s gone through to get where she is, and how she’s managed to become such an outcast.

In the other storyline, the reader gets to know Holly and her friends and the events that led up to the murder. In a sort of True Detective style, the reader also gets the truth about what really happened, as opposed to what the girls are telling the cops in their present-day interviews. Suffice it to say, all the girls lie, and they a lot—to the detectives, to their teachers, to each other, and often to themselves. It’s to French’s credit that this makes them more complex and human than simple stereotypes. At the heart of everything that happens to Holly and her three friends is a pact they make to each other, one that frees them in ways they did not expect, and binds them in others.

One of the best things about French is her ear for the authentic. She loads the girls’ chapters with up-to-date references and slang, which is important because it helps to make those chapters (and the girls themselves) stand in stark contrast to who they are when they’re being interviewed by the detectives. It can be grating in the moment (a little like being at my neighborhood Starbucks when the nearby private school lets out for the afternoon), but it adds a layer to the characters the reader wouldn’t see otherwise.

I admit, my favorite parts of the book were the present-day chapters narrated by Detective Moran. While the girls’ chapters are well done, too, Moran is such a compelling character, and the interaction between Moran and Conway—wait! No spoilers! But like I said, Moran provides a view of Conway that’s an interesting reflection of what’s happening to the girls. The reader roots for them to solve the case, of course, but for them both as people.

As for the mystery, the whodunnit of it all, it’s probably the least important part of the book, which is good because it’s just the tiniest bit lame. French most definitely writes character-driven mysteries, so if you’re expecting an action-packed page-turner of a mystery, this isn’t your book. It has that (among other things) in common with another adult mystery of sorts that features teenage girls, Megan Abbott’s The Fever. What I said about that book applies here as well:

“[She] does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy.”

Four out of five stars. Full disclosure: I received an early review copy from NetGalley, but also purchased the book.

So Many Books, So Few Reviews

Please forgive my unintentional hiatus. I went away on a Friday in July, fully intending to return on Tuesday, and then I just didn’t. I have reasons, but most of them are boring. Nothing dramatic, nothing earthshaking. Let’s just say that summer takes it out of me, and I am so happy to see the light changing and getting tiny, tiny hints of fall in the air now and again.

I’ve been away from the blog, but I most certainly have not stopped reading. In fact, I’ve kept up what for me is a pretty decent pace considering my limited reading time. I believe the last book I mentioned reading was (Man-Booker long-listed) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I finished that in early July and since then I’ve read:
Stoner, John Williams
Lucky Us, Amy Bloom
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, Diana Wegman
The Children Act, Ian McEwan (Pub date Sept 9)
The Secret Place, Tana French (Pub date Sept 2!!! Yes, multiple exclamation points!! It’s so good!!!)
Canada, Richard Ford

(And I know I’ve had A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain listed as “On My Nightstand” for like six weeks. And it was on my nightstand. I just wasn’t reading it. I am reading it now. Really.)

Lucky Us CoverWith a couple of exceptions, all of these really deserve their own reviews. One that doesn’t warrant a full review for me is Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us, which I thought was just okay. Lucky Us is the story of two half-sisters, Iris and Eva, told through alternating points of view by Eva in the first person and other characters through third-person POV and letters. The story takes place in the United States during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. The book begins well enough—Eva at least is a compelling narrator—but if the heart of the book is really the two sisters, it seems to lose its way. An accident estranges Iris from Eva, but something about the accident–something about the whole plot–just never came together for me. Bloom writes smoothly and Eva is a compelling narrator in her sections, but ultimately it’s rather dull. (But look at that lovely cover! Away also had a lovely cover, and was also…well, read on.)

I discovered Amy Bloom when I read her debut short story collection Come to Me in graduate school. In fact, it was probably one of the first short story collections I ever read, as at the time I was a stranger to short fiction. For several years, I named it as one of my favorite books. I hesitate to say I was wrong and just didn’t know any better at the time, mainly because I haven’t read it in at least 15 years. But then again, I haven’t read it again in the last 15 years, and I HAVE re-read (many times) plenty of other collections I read back then. I tried to read her novel Away, but I never finished it. As with Lucky Us, nothing was wrong with it—I simply found it ho-hum. If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you probably know that I am all about character-driven fiction. I’ve seen many of my favorite authors’ books—Kent Haruf, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson—labeled boring. So if I say something is dull…well, maybe chalk it up to my mood. (Or maybe it’s just dull. I’ll let you decide for yourself.)

Alright, enough about that. I need to get busy writing reviews of all those other books. Believe me, if I can do them justice, you definitely won’t want to miss some of them!

*Image and links from Powell’s; links are unaffiliated. I received my copy of Lucky Us from NetGalley.