Some stuff I read on public transportation

Y’all, I wish I could teleport. If I had back the two hours a day I currently spend getting to and from work, I would be the awesomest book blogger instead of the very lamest. I have been going back and forth and forth and back to work and to visit friends-and-relations, and these are good times to read but it is not the funnest reading time because I’m slightly on edge from being in transit (trains are very peaceful and pleasant, but buses and subways are not). And I would like to be using that time to catch up on blog reading and writing because I love you guys.

Anyway, here are some of the books I read on public transportation and forgot to write up as full posts:

Woman, Natalie Angier – Finally. I have tried reading Woman several times and been utterly put off by Natalie Angier’s writing style, which is close to unbearably florid and precious at times. I feel fine about, for instance, my Fallopian tubes. I do not need to see them compared to beautiful beautiful flowers:

The tubes are exquisite, soft and rosy and slim as pens, tipped like a feather duster with a bell of fronds, called fimbriae…To me they look like sea anemones, flowers of flesh, the petals throbbing to the cadence of blood.

Gag. And, throbbing is a word you should use as little as possible because it’s gross.. However, as noted by many other book bloggers, Woman contains lots of good information about women’s biology, sexuality, evolution, and so forth, and it’s worth reading for that reason. You just might have to give yourself some time to adjust to Natalie Angier’s love-letter-to-an-ovary-style writing. I reiterate that I am a sex-positive girl who does not have a problem with any part of her body, but I nevertheless think that Natalie Angier’s imagery can be a trifle overblown. It was distracting. Moar science, less flourishing.

The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits – As often happens when I want Book B by a certain author and am forced by circumstances to get Book A instead, I was disappointed. (I wanted to read The Vanishers.) The Uses of Enchantment is about a girl called Mary who may or may not have been kidnapped and raped as a teenager and had a book written about how she was indeed not kidnapped and raped but was just a liar, and now many years later, she’s back in town for her mother’s funeral. Eh, it was fine, I guess. I wanted the plot to be twistier, the reveals to be more interesting, the sister relationships to feel more like actual sisters. Heidi Julavits uses one of my favorite literary techniques, an unreliable narrator, to utterly boring effect.

Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked is about a woman called Annie who breaks up with her boyfriend Duncan who is obsessed with a musician Tucker Crowe who has not produced any new music since 1989 or something; Annie and Tucker Crowe happen to strike up a correspondence, and events proceed from there. Again, fine. If Nick Hornby were a woman no one would give him two seconds of their time, but I suppose that is not Nick Hornby’s fault. As much as I want to like him, his books leave me feeling vaguely unfulfilled, like below-average vegetarian sushi.

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, Danielle Ganek – An artist dies on the night of his first big show, a show in which the primary piece is a picture of his niece Lulu as a little girl. That piece, entitled “Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him”, becomes the subject of great interest in the New York art world, and we see all this unfold through the eyes of gallery girl and unsuccessful painter Mia McMurray. The book is interesting in its use of ekphrasis — I love me some ekphrasis — and for its depiction of the New York art world.

Nightingale Wood, Stella Gibbon – Stella Gibbon! Would do business with her again. Cold Comfort Farm never quite altogether does it for me, which I’ve always chalked up to having seen the extremely faithful movie before reading the book. But in fact I think it’s that Stella Gibbon is very close to, but not exactly, the author for me. I enjoyed Nightingale Wood while not taking pure pleasure in it the way I do when reading, say, Elinor Lipman. Matters ended well for everyone, but none of the characters was nice enough for me to be enthusiastic about his or her marital or professional success.

So that’s it! I now consider myself all caught on all the things. Probably by the time this post posts, I’ll be behind again, but what can you do? I am a bad blogger and I have not been good in ages. I wish I didn’t have to commute. If I could teleport I’d never have to commute to work ever again, and that would be amazing.

Review: The Long Song, Andrea Levy

At last I have read something by Andrea Levy! I have been meaning to do so for many moons now, and when my book club decided to go with Angela Carter instead of Andrea Levy for next month, I trotted round to the library and got The Long Song. I wanted Small Island but it turned out I couldn’t be bothered climbing all the way up the stairs to the second floor where they keep the non-new fiction. (I know Long Song came out in 2010. Don’t ask me to explain the new/not new classification system of the New York Public Library.)

The Long Song is the story of a slave girl named July, the daughter of a slave on a Jamaican plantation and the plantation’s overseer. Taken from her mother, she becomes a house slave, serving as lady’s maid to the foolish, self-centered, and easily led Caroline Mortimer. July’s life, lasting through the Baptist War in 1831 and the (nominal) emancipation of the Jamaican slaves, is framed as a story written by the mother of a printer, Thomas Kinsman, with occasional editorial asides from Thomas Kinsman to clarify matters and make pointed remarks about his mother’s reliability.

What was very good indeed: (and I loved this) The complex depiction of racism and prejudice throughout the book. We see all different varieties of racism, from the open hatred and contempt of the overseer, to the weak-willed giving in to racism of many of the other white characters, to the pride July takes in being mulatto, rather than black. I also loved the way Levy portrayed the intense cognitive dissonance that was created for many of the characters by their situations, and the extreme ways in which they resolved it. Caroline Mortimer, for instance, causes something pretty horrible to happen midway through the book, and she deals with it by pretending that something totally different happened; this parallels July’s need to paint a happier, or at least a tidier, picture of the events of her life.

The unreliability of July as a narrator was enjoyable, as it emphasized the back and forth between the casual, slangy, careless way the character July speaks, and the very Victorian speech patterns of the narrator (whom we know to be a much older July). There were times when the narrator would tell the story one way, then pause to say that, okay, that’s not really what happened, my son wants me to tell the truth, so this is what really happened. I loved that, particularly as employed at the very end of the book, but I thought Levy could have made better use of it. I have told y’all before that I like an unreliable narrator, but what I like about an unreliable narrator is reaching the end of the book and not being sure what to believe. When July was being unreliable, it was usually made clear and corrected.

In spite of these excellent aspects, I had a hard time connecting with the characters and thus loving the book. I felt like I was at arm’s length the entire time, and I couldn’t exactly discern why that should be the case. I might have been doing it myself, self-protecting because I find books about slavery so viscerally upsetting. Or it might have been Andrea Levy’s choice of narrator, and the way that July very rarely gives the reader a glimpse of her most deeply-held emotions. As a trend, I like characters to the exact extent that they want something I can sympathize with.

Review: The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky

It turns out that a TBR shelf was the best idea I ever had. I’ve made the top section of my little bookshelf into a priority-reads shelf. Now when I am wondering what to read, and I think longingly of library books, my TBR shelf is like a stern little taskmaster going “Oh no you don’t, missy. You have all these books right here in your own very room.” And then I read those books instead, and honestly? I bought or asked for most of those books myself. There is no reason to suppose that I will like them any less than the books I would have gotten at the library.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the first of a number of books I received for review at various points in the year, and now am going to review over the next week or two. I have this TBR shelf and it has made me into a responsible book blogger who reads the books she receives for review. (Not promptly, I can’t say I always do it promptly, but from now on, I’m going to bring it with the promptness.)

Anyway, this is Alina Bronsky’s second novel published with Europa. It is about Rosalinda Achmetowna, a Tartar woman of exceptional beauty, intelligence, and organizational skills (or so she says), whose ugly daughter Sulfia finds herself pregnant. Though Rosa tries several times to induce an abortion, Sulfia has the baby, a beautiful little girl whom Rosa names Aminat and on whom she utterly dotes. She knows what is best for Aminat. For Sulfia as well. And for her husband. And for everyone, ever.

I was getting a hell of a kick out of Rosa for about the first half of this book. She’s so utterly convinced of her rightness in every situation, what’s best for her husband, what restrictions will make Aminat into a poised, well-behaved little girl, what sneaky little manipulations will obtain a husband for Sulfia. It is funny. I have a soft spot for characters who think they know best. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this is attributable to a character trait in me by which I always think I know best.

But then Rosa did something — and it wasn’t the something you might think — that made me stop liking her permanently. I am often surprised by the things that turn out to be moral event horizons for me, like that time I gave up on Snape forever for making fun of Hermione’s teeth (look, I don’t know why that was the thing for me), and I was surprised about this. I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you what Rosa did that put me off her. It’s really very funny, if you are a fan of exceptionally black humor, and it’s also quite sad. I would have liked to see a few more cracks in the facade of Rosa’s virtue, but mostly I was contented with the unreliableness of this narrator.

Here’s the warning on the label: If you are like my Mumsy and you are unduly bothered by mistreatment of children, this book maybe isn’t for you. Just for your information.

Other reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts
Leafing Through Life
The Boston Bibliophile
Largehearted Boy
JenandthePen
Indie Reader Houston
Conversational Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Exception, Christian Jungersen

Buried in Print posted a review of Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life the other day, and as I was preparing jubilant remarks in my head to comment on the post, I saw that there was already a jubilant-remarks comment on the post, by Jenny, and I was like, Whoa, did I comment on this post in a fugue state? It freaked me out, so I hastily clicked “Jenny” and that is how I found….British Jenny! Hooray! (Hi, British Jenny!) British Jenny had just read a book that was translated from the Danish (I am trying to read more books in translation) and featured multiple unreliable narrators as well as numerous fun facts about genocide. You know I had to get on that.

The Exception is about the women who work at a (fictional) Danish institution for the study of genocide. They start getting threatening emails, which they assume at first to be the work of a particular terrorist about whom they have written in the past. However, they soon begin to suspect that someone at their own institution was responsible for the emails. This gives rise to some very unpleasant office politics and causes everyone to reflect on the nature of evil. Throughout the book, we get the points of view of each of the four women in the office, so that we are always having to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about them and the dynamics of the office they work in.

When you say a book is about office politics, that doesn’t necessarily send people dashing to the bookstore to acquire it, but I really enjoyed those parts of the book. Jungersen does it so well, the disputes about tiny things (keep the door to the library open or don’t keep it open) that begin to assume a disproportionate level of importance the longer they go unresolved; the way you hear a rumor about what’s happening to the office and its occupants, and suddenly everyone has heard the rumor and cannot stop whispering about it. What made all this even better (to me) was the “Can This Marriage Be Saved”-like way I was never sure which side of any conflict was the right side, because it looked so utterly different depending on who was narrating.

There was some psychobabble that mildly annoyed me, and I am not crazy about third-person present-tense – as Memory points out, how would that work anyway? – but seriously, this book is damn good, and overcomes its minor flaws to be awesome. You know, upsetting, but awesome.

Here is what I did that was stupid. I started reading The Exception in the afternoon on Friday (or Saturday maybe?), when everything was bright and cheerful, and then the book was absorbing so I carried on reading it as darkness fell. The book talked about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. It talked about this, and also about scary torture techniques and breaking into houses and raping and looting. I took a short break from all the reading to let my puppy out, and she let out a barrage of urgent barks, which usually just means she wants to come back inside. So I let her inside, but she didn’t start barking. She stared furiously at the back door and barked her stupid puppy head off, and she did this at intervals for twenty minutes. And I was like, Aaaaaa, there’s a burglar, but I turned on all the outside lights and peered out the windows, and nope, no burglar. I was still sort of spooked, and the puppy continued to flip her shit for no reason, and I really didn’t want to carry on reading my genocide book.

But instead of putting aside my genocide book and reading Hilary McKay and L. M. Montgomery until bedtime, I foolishly thought about it a lot, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear dictate my reading choices, by God! I thought, I will never become brave if I don’t actively try not to be fearful. In retrospect I’m not sure why it seemed so important to finish reading The Exception right then rather than waiting for morning. All this to say, I do not know if this book would ordinarily count for the RIP Challenge, but since I read the last third of it with my heart racing, and my ears all alert for bad guys breaking into my house, and my stupid overactive brain imagining fifteen different (bad) ways that could play out, I’m counting it.

Other reviews:

All Lit Up (thanks for the recommendation!)
Ready When You Are, C.B.
Prairie Progressive

Let me know if I missed yours!

Drab lunacy

My older sister is a big fan of the simple food. She likes rice, and cheese, and meat. You would think that Mexican food would be perfect for her, since it’s all just different ways of putting together rice and meat and cheese and sometimes potatoes and beans. But she hates Mexican food. All of it. Won’t eat it. The ingredients are perfect for her, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

That is how I felt about Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans. Its component parts were all good: Matthew Kneale, award-winning author; family drama; unreliable narrator; road trip; narrator fond of stories about ancient Romans. Nine-year-old Lawrence and his sister Jemima are taken by their mother on a trip to Rome, trying to escape from their father, who is trying to poison them (or something). Lawrence’s mother used to live in Rome, so she has plenty of friends able to take them in for a few days at a time, while they try to figure out what to do next. But the trouble that they feared in Scotland may have followed them to Rome.

Still, the book just didn’t do it for me. I was dissatisfied. Either the unreliability of the narrator was too obvious or too vague. The stories from ancient Rome that Lawrence told were too plainly applicable, or insufficiently so. Mostly, and y’all know this is true from how much I liked White Is for Witching, my preferences lie in the latter direction, vague over obvious, even if that means I end up not knowing what’s up. When We Were Romans tended to tilt the other way, and I turned up my nose. Another problem for me was that I didn’t find the story compelling enough. It was drab, in spite of the craziness the family was facing, and I like my running-away-from-home stories to be colorful. This is the second running away from home story I’ve failed to enjoy in the month of August. Any suggestions for a better one? I like running away from home stories! I’m sure I do, I always have!

I would also appreciate suggestions for a good book about the Brontës. Lynne Reid Banks’s Dark Quartet was as unsatisfying as When We Were Romans, or more so. This lent strength to two things I already suspected: first, that I am in the mood for fantasy right now, and second, that the Brontës were an unpleasing combination of lunacy and drabness. But I may be wrong. The Brontës may be far more interesting than I’m giving them credit for. So I would like your recommendations. I will read any book about any Brontë (not right now; later, when I’m no longer in the mood for only fantasy), if y’all think it’s good.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

Verdict: Not as good as Rebecca.

Philip, the protagonist of My Cousin Rachel, has been raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose.  Ambrose goes away to Italy, marries there, and a few years later sends a letter to Philip intimating that he is in danger, and asking Philip to come to Italy straight away.  When Philip gets there, Ambrose has died, and Rachel is gone.  He conceives a hatred for her, believing that she was responsible for Ambrose’s death; but when she comes to stay with him in England, he falls for her straight away.  Is she evil?  Did she poison Ambrose, and is she poisoning Philip now?  Spooooooky.

I liked Rachel.  You can see why Philip falls in love with her – like Rebecca, she absolutely deserves to have the book called after her.  And like the protagonist of Rebecca, Philip is never completely sure where he stands, but unlike poor Mrs. de Winter, Philip is determined to be sure (act sure).  For me, this made all the difference – he drove me insane and I wanted to slap him.  Seriously, guy, ever hear of black and white thinking?  Also called splitting?  This is symptomatic of some really unpleasant personality disorders, and you could maybe think about curbing that tendency.  I couldn’t figure out why his godfather’s daughter liked him so much, good heavens.

On the other hand, Philip’s extremism makes possible something I love, which is that we see Rachel through his eyes, but that the rest of the characters all have things to say about her too.  So we can see that other people are reacting to her charm, the same way Philip does, but we can also see things that Philip refuses to look at or acknowledge – her extravagance, the way it looks to have her living in the house with him.  It keeps you guessing, and you never are sure whether she’s poisoning him, and poisoned Ambrose.  Per usual Daphne du Maurier writes beautifully and uses some gorgeous images.

Er, but it’s still not as good as Rebecca.  I love me some Rebecca.

Other reviews:

books i done read
Bookfoolery and Babble
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
The Literate Housewife
a lovely shore breeze
S. Krishna’s Books
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Stuck in a Book
we be reading
book-a-rama

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

At last I have finished a novel by Shirley Jackson!  I liked the short stories I read of hers in eighth grade (“The Lottery”, predictably, and “The Possibility of Evil”), but ignored her novels for years, and then I tried to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I got it out of the library at my university in Colchester, and hated it.  I got about ten pages in and couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to go another page.

I have to try it again, because I loved The Haunting of Hill House.  I reluctantly bought it for 50 cents at the book fair in March, and on a whim decided to bring it with me on this trip.  Absolutely loved it.  It’s all about a Doctor Montague who decides to rent out a supposedly haunted house, hire some assistants who have had experiences with psychic phenomena, and spend some time there recording the paranormal experiences that occur.  By reading through old accounts of inexplicable things that have happened, he finds Theodora, a rather dashing cheerful clever woman, and Eleanor, an early-thirties spinster who has spent the better years of her life caring for her sick, demanding mother.  They, along with the house’s current owner Luke, come to the house to join Dr. Montague.

Eleanor is the third-person narrator of the story.  It is clear from the first that she has been kept down and treated like a child by her family, but it seems that she will be able to break free from this.  She takes her first steps towards independence when she takes her sister’s car and goes to Hill House on her own; she makes friends with Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, easily, straight away.  Things could be looking up for our Eleanor.

Except, of course, they aren’t.  As the book goes on, Eleanor becomes extremely susceptible to the house’s particular brand of evil, which – to be fair – is targeting her from early on.  The reader comes to trust Eleanor’s perceptions of what is happening less and less – is Theodora actually acting from the motives Eleanor ascribes to her?  Is Luke interested in Eleanor, or is he not?  Eleanor seems very sure at times, but the reader often is not.

The Haunting of Hill House is all spooky and subtle.  Very Shirley Jackson, from what I can remember of her short stories.  I am a sucker for a story about a haunted house, and this is a particularly good one.  Thanks to Nymeth for the nudge to bump this up on my reading list!

Other views:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair

So Many Books

Booknotes by Lisa

Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner
Sadie-Jean
Stuck in a Book
Bibliolatry
Melody’s Reading Corner

Let me know if I missed yours – so many of these say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is better, so I really must remember to try it again when I get home.

The Interloper, Antoine Wilson

Recommended by: an adventure in reading

When I say that this book reminded me of how much I love to read, I don’t want you to take that as too much of a compliment to the book. With that caveat – The Interloper really reminded me of how much I love to read. I went to the library today with a massive big list of books to get, and all the ones I wanted most, they hadn’t got (ain’t it always the way). But this was the one I was most interested to read so I sat down and read it; and when I had to get up and clean the kitchen, I did that thing where you do all the tasks you can do while reading, which takes ages because you are only using one hand and not very much of your brain, and then you have to actually put the book down so you do the other stuff lickety-split with maximum efficiency so you can quickly get back to reading your book.

I will sum up: The protagonist’s wife’s brother was murdered by this guy, Henry Joseph Raven, and the wife, Patty, has been very unhappy ever since then, and the protagonist (Owen – I hate the name Owen) decides to help his wife come to terms with it by getting a sneaky revenge on Raven. He invents this persona, Lily, and writes letters to Raven to make him fall in love with her, and the Plan is that when Raven is totally in love with Lily, Owen will crush him completely by revealing that Lily isn’t real. And instead of that he

SPOILER

finds out Raven’s been lying in all of his letters too and then he (Owen) gets all crazy and winds up killing Raven’s girlfriend in a fit of rage.

/SPOILER

The Interloper is very interesting, and in a way it’s not badly done. Mr. Wilson does a good Unreliable Narrator Guy, with the dropping of the hints and the filtering stuff through crazy eyes. I wanted to know what would happen.

As I typed that just now, I realized that I didn’t read the end of this book. Dude! I didn’t skip to the end! Huh. Turns out I was reading so absorbedly that I actually forgot to read the end. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Obviously my brain has ceased to function. This is an object lesson in never ever ever getting so attached to cross-stitching and guitar-playing that you cut back drastically on your normal reading habits.

I know! I’m making it sound so good! But here’s the thing (the two things): This book, it was totally creepy. The blog where I read about this book compares it to Lolita, by comparison with which any book would suffer, but Lolita does creepy in way that doesn’t make my flesh crawl – which you’d think pedophilia would, if anything was going to – whereas The Interloper was kinda icky and unpleasant to read.

Plus, there’s this also, if you are not a person who is phased by creepy: The whole plot was just entirely unbelievable. Really. And you are getting this verdict from a girl who 1) is entirely conversant with Crazy as she has two therapist parents; and 2) has a deep knowledge of the power of talking the talk until you are walking the walk. One time, my driver’s ed teacher was awful and made me cry and I feared and hated driving and then I started saying “I love driving! Driving is my favorite thing in the world! Driving is amazing and wonderful!” until I really felt that way and now I love driving so, so, so much. (This is a victory story as far as I’m concerned, but I told it to my ex one time and he seemed very perturbed by it.) But in spite of my experiences with crazy and brainwashing, I still found this completely silly.

I don’t even know what categories to file this under. Hmph.