wrap-up: books read in March 2017

Last post today, I swear!

  • Medea by Euripides ★★★★
  • The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse ★★ + review
  • Bright Air Black by David Vann ★★★★★ + review
  • Marlena by Julie Buntin ★★★ + review
  • I See You by Clare Mackintosh ★★★★ + review
  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout ★★ + review
  • Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leech ★★★★ + review
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders ★★★★ + review
  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller ★★★★ + review
  • Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber ★★ + review

Best: Bright Air Black by David Vann
Runner up: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leech
Worst: Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Poor Medea is the only thing that didn’t get a review.  Alas!  Still a pretty good reading month.  10 books and 9 reviews.  Not bad for working full time.  Who needs sleep anyway?

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book review: Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

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Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

US pub date: August 1, 2017

★★☆☆☆

Are You Sleeping is a topical mystery about a podcast which reopens a decade-old case about the murder of a college professor. Podcast host and investigative journalist Poppy Parnell is unconvinced that the person convicted for the murder, Warren Cave, is actually guilty, and sets out to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, as the podcast gains momentum and becomes a nation-wide phenomenon, the victim’s daughter, Josie Buhrman, is forced to return home and confront her twin sister Lanie whom she hasn’t spoken to in ten years, in order to make sense of what happened that night. The entire conviction of Warren Cave hinges on a piece of evidence given by Lanie, who claims she saw Warren do it – but did she really?

I wanted to love this, and I was pretty sure I was going to, at first. It’s snappy, fast paced, and the use of the podcast makes for a really unique and intriguing premise. I loved the inclusion of comments on various social media outlets; I really felt like I was involved in the case in some voyeuristic way. That was very well done. Unfortunately, there was also a lot that I didn’t like.

First, the prose. It’s very simple and readable, which can be good for this genre where you don’t necessarily want your mystery to get bogged down in excessively flowery writing. So I didn’t mind that at first, but it eventually started to feel a bit too amateur. The dialogue could have been straight out of a Lifetime movie, and there was this thing the author did incessantly that really started to bug me: someone makes some big declaration to Josie, like, “you abandoned me ten years ago!” (this is never actually said – I’m just making up an example.) And then instead of replying immediately, Josie pontificates for an entire paragraph: “I realized he was right. I did abandon him. Ten years ago this happened, and I reacted this certain way. I realize now I maybe shouldn’t have reacted like that.” And it goes on and on and on, like that particular thought hadn’t occurred to Josie until right this second, and she has to take time immediately to reflect on it…. which would be okay once or twice, but I literally lost track of how many times a conversation was derailed by Josie randomly going into some deep introspection partway through it. It just felt unrealistic and melodramatic.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t like Josie. I did like her. I thought she was a well-developed character, along with nearly all of the rest of them. The huge exception for me was Poppy Parnell. If her name makes her sound like a villain from Harry Potter, that’s probably appropriate, since she reminded me so much of Rita Skeeter. She embodies just about every negative stereotype you can think of about investigative journalists – insensitive bordering on cruel, intrusive, heartless. At first I liked Poppy’s character for this reason, she did seem like the sort of person who would reopen a closed case without a second thought for the repercussions on the victim’s family. By the end of the book, however, she started to feel like such a stereotypical villain that I was half expecting her to start twirling a mustache.

To switch gears a little bit, my other huge problem with this book was that there never felt like there was much at stake. The characters are investigating a ten-year old case, and none of the suspects are really in a position to cause further harm at this point. There’s just a sense of urgency that’s missing from this narrative; there’s no ‘this needs to be solved NOW because someone’s in danger,’ just… a reopened case that can be solved at the characters’ leisure. I don’t mean to imply that this was dull or tedious read. It wasn’t; it was extremely fast and well paced. I just felt like there was some kind of tension missing throughout the whole thing.

And finally, the ending. No spoilers, but I can’t remember the last time I read a thriller where I was this disappointed with how obvious I thought the ending was. Also, a huge reveal basically hinges on a character randomly remembering a repressed memory, which of course happens in real life, of course people are triggered by certain sounds and smells etc. to remember something they’d been repressing. However, in storytelling, it just comes across as a bit too convenient.

If this book interests you for its cool premise, I hope you give it a try when it’s published. It’s short and fast-paced, which makes for a really quick read. And I did enjoy reading it… at least for the first 80%. That’s about when the rating really started plummeting for me. But based on other reviews so far, it looks like I’m going to be in the minority with this opinion!

And one final note: don’t read this and Dead Letters (by Caite Dolan-Leech) around the same time. There are so many similarities that I actually started mixing up the characters in my head, which is something I never do. Seriously: protagonist is an identical twin sister, the ‘good twin’, her sister is the wild twin; protagonist is estranged from her family because she chose to leave them behind and go abroad following a betrayal by her twin sister; the mothers in both case have mental health issues; protagonist returns home following a long absence and is confronted with her high school love interest who’s now involved with her sister… I mean, given their publication dates this has to be 100% coincidental, I don’t mean to imply otherwise – but still!! It was hard to keep remembered details from Dead Letters from creeping into this story.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Gallery Books, and Kathleen Barber.

+ link to review on goodreads

25 at 25

Happy birthday to me.  In honor of turning 25 (yikes), I wanted to celebrate the milestone by documenting my top 25 books at this point in my life.  Vaguely in order but also not really.  Also excluding plays, because that would make this far too difficult.

  1. JK Rowling, the Harry Potter series
  2. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
  3. Homer, The Iliad
  4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  5. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
  6. Donna Tartt, The Secret History
  7. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
  8. Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
  9. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  10. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
  11. John Steinbeck, East of Eden
  12. Kate Chopin, The Awakening
  13. Dante, The Divine Comedy
  14. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
  15. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
  16. Hannah Kent, Burial Rites
  17. Vergil, The Aeneid
  18. Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
  19. Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See
  20. George Orwell, 1984
  21. Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
  22. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  23. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
  24. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  25. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

So there you have it.  What are your all-time favorites?  And what must-reads am I missing from my list?  Comment and let me know!  And thanks to everyone who reads my blog.  You guys are awesome and I hope you have a great day.

top 5 wednesday: Future Classics

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

March 29th – Future Classics: Let us know the books you think will be considered classics one day!

Interesting note about this week’s topic. In certain academic circles, comparative lit and media studies departments have been merging, with the thought that our generation isn’t going to be typified by one or two authors who emerge as the 21st Century Classic Writers, but rather, we’re going to be characterized by different media: television and film, etc.

That said, I’d rather talk books than movies. So with the hope that we keep considering books ‘classics’ in the future, here is my list!

6334Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: What is there to say about Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel that hasn’t already been said… Set in an ambiguous near-future dystopia, this book centers on the lives of a group of students, whose unique upbringing is grooming them to play a specific role in society, and they have no say in it.  This book at its core is an examination of humanity, of what it means to be human. And when I think about some of my favorite classics (Les Miserables, Of Human Bondage, East of Eden, etc.), isn’t that the theme at the center of all of these works?  Thematically, Never Let Me Go fits in seamlessly with some of the greats, and Ishiguro’s prose lends itself to a certain timeless vibe.

7244The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: Is this already a classic, technically? Am I cheating?  Oh well.  It was published in 1998, after all, so I don’t think it’s a Proper Classic at this point, anyway.  The Poisonwood Bible is Barbara Kingsolver’s incredible novel about a missionary family living in the Congo in the 1950s.  As a phenomenal exploration of colonialism and ‘white saviorism,’ this book has a definite timelessness about it, and provides a social allegory that’s certainly still relevant today, and which I believe will unfortunately continue to be relevant in years to come.  Everyone should read this book, if you haven’t already.

220px-funhomecoverFun Home by Alison Bechdel: Between her famous ‘Bechdel test‘ and the fantastic Broadway musical based on her autobiographical graphic novel, Alison Bechdel has managed to cross over into mainstream literary circles in the way that few graphic novelists have in recent years.  And not only that, but Fun Home is Bechdel’s personal reflection on her own sexuality, making it one of the only lesbian coming of age stories that people are familiar with at the moment.  As (I hope) this subgenre grows in the future, Fun Home will undoubtedly remain one of the pioneering stories, that I hope will be long remembered.  A really incredible fusion of strong prose and gorgeous graphics, Fun Home is an amazing graphic novel that isn’t to be missed (even if you aren’t a huge fan of this genre, which I’m definitely not, ordinarily).

7937843Room by Emma Donoghue: This is one of those ‘believe the hype’ books.  I had my reservations about Room before I started, thinking that the subject matter might be overly sensationalized, but I ended up finding this to be an incredible exploration of trauma, and the difficulty and messiness involved in healing.  It also raises questions about the rules and rigidity of our society that we accept without question, and the lack of specifics in this story – no names, no place names – lend it a universality that makes me think it will endure for a long time.

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This acclaimed novel topping best seller lists in recent weeks is a huge game changer.  Not necessarily because of the subject matter – Saunders is hardly the first to fictionalize a historical figure – but because of its unique format.  Part novel, part play, and part poetry, Lincoln in the Bardo transcends the limitations that we’ve placed on not only the historical fiction genre, but on the entire category of the novel.  I think it’s inevitable that others will end up following where Bardo leads us, which I look forward to, and I think Saunders’ legacy is going to be that of an innovator.

book review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

US pub date: February 2017

★★★★☆

I have a lot of fatigue with the particular Marriages Gone Bad genre. Fates and Furies, Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train… this particular narrative is just so omnipresent that I find these books feel stale far too often. And in theory, Swimming Lessons doesn’t really sound like it’s going to be the exception. Gil and Ingrid, once in love, each in their own way reflecting on what went wrong. But I’m glad I took a chance on it anyway, because I thought there was something genuinely very refreshing and moving about this book.

Between the present-day chapters that follow the point of view of Flora, daughter of Gil and Ingrid, we have letters that Ingrid wrote to Gil in 1992. Ingrid tells the story of their marriage from her point of view and hides these letters amid the thousands of books that Gil owns, and when she finishes her last letter, she vanishes, presumed drowned, though Flora never believed it. So when Gil thinks he sees Ingrid in town one day, Flora returns home and attempts to learn the truth behind her mother’s disappearance.

While you definitely have to suspend your disbelief with Ingrid’s letters (she writes out lengthy bits of dialogue word for word in a rather un-epistolary fashion), these were still my favorite part of this novel. Ingrid’s character was fascinating and tragic. Seduced by her college professor and finding herself married and a mother at too young of an age, Ingrid writes these letters to assert herself after years of living in Gil’s shadow.

With the exception of Ingrid, these characters are hard to like, but I found them all the more believable for that. Gil was reprehensible in a lot of ways, but he was still human. Flora and her sister Nan were frustrating, but they were products of a difficult upbringing. All of these characters were real and well-crafted, and though I didn’t personally care for many of them, I couldn’t help but to be drawn into their complicated dynamic.

Two themes run parallel throughout Swimming Lessons – first, is it better to live with concrete knowledge of someone’s death, or to hold out hope that they might still be out there? And second, does a story belong more to the author or to the reader? These themes manifest themselves throughout the story in a clever fashion. This is one of those thought-provoking books that you can’t help but to keep thinking about every time you put it down. And you won’t want to put it down, with Claire Fuller’s gorgeous and compelling prose.

One final note – file this one into the Everything I Never Told You and Dead Letters category of ‘the blurb makes it sound like a mystery, but it really isn’t.’ This is a slow but evenly paced character-driven novel, and though the thread of Ingrid’s disappearance runs through it, that isn’t the focus. Just keep that in mind if you’re trying to decide whether or not to pick this up. If you read exclusively mysteries, this probably won’t be for you, but if you appreciate character-driven stories, this is a great one.

+ link to review on goodreads

not strictly book related: desert island discs

I saw Callum do this tag a few weeks ago and I couldn’t resist.

You are cast away onto a remote island:

  • You can bring 5 albums, what are they?
  • You can bring ONE book (not including The Bible (or other appropriate religious texts) or The Complete Works of Shakespeare, as they are already provided and NO SERIES), what ONE book is it?
  • You can have one luxury item (it has to be inanimate and can’t help you escape the island), what is it?

5 ALBUMS:

Radiohead – In Rainbows

I’m obsessed with Radiohead, to the point where I considered throwing OK Computer in the mix as well.  But I couldn’t justify giving one band two albums.  Anyway, if I had to choose just one, it would have to be In Rainbows.  Between Nude, Reckoner, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, and Jigsaw Falling Into Place, I can’t sacrifice this one.  Seriously, just listen to this song.

The National – High Violet

My other main obsession in the music world.  Conversation 16 is my favorite song, ever, but even if it weren’t for that, I’d still have to choose this album, which I think is The National at their best.  (I was about to say that there isn’t a single song I dislike, but I realized that isn’t true – thanks a lot, Lemonworld).  But even so, loving 11/12 songs isn’t bad at all.

David Bowie – Blackstar

Like the majority of the classic rock loving world, I was devastated when David Bowie died, and listened to this album on repeat for weeks.  I really do think it’s something of a masterpiece.  And while Lazarus and Blackstar got most of the attention, I actually think Dollar Days is the saddest and most haunting track off this album, and Bowie’s eulogy to himself.  Anyway, over a year later I’m still obsessed with this album, and would hate to part with it.

Pearl Jam – Ten

This was tricky.  I’m obsessed with Pearl Jam, but unlike my other favorite bands where all of my favorite songs tend to be concentrated on one album, with Pearl Jam they’re spread across the board.  Actually, if you take my five favorite Pearl Jam songs – Corduroy, Sirens, Black, Rearviewmirror, and Hail Hail – they’re all off different albums.  Quite the dilemma.  But I think that I find Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, to be the most satisfying as a cohesive unit, and it’s what first got me into Pearl Jam a million years ago, so it seemed appropriate.

Incubus – Make Yourself

And finally, a throwback to my teenage years, when I was absolutely obsessed with Incubus.  I’ve seen them in concert twice, own all of their albums, own a couple of their albums in vinyl, and have approximately three of their band t-shirts.  Oh, and I still have a massive Incubus poster on my wall.  I should probably replace that with something more timely, come to think of it.  Anyway.  The point is, this band meant an awful lot to me, and being stranded on a deserted island seems like the perfect time for the sort of personal reflection that only listening to your favorite band from high school can induce.

1 BOOK:

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Easy.  The Iliad by Homer.  I’m stuck on an island with nothing to do but read, so obviously I’m going to want something that will keep me busy for a while.  At 683 pages, this is the perfect solution.  But more importantly, this is a book that I can get something new out of every time I read it.  I’ve only read it twice so far, but both times were a completely different experience for me.  There are so many names and places to keep track of here, it’s going to be able to keep me mentally stimulated even if I have nothing better to do than read it cover to cover ten times.

1 LUXURY ITEM:

Hmm.  I’m boring and practical, so I’m going to say a blanket.  I imagine deserted islands get cold at night.

So, there’s a bit about me.  I also want to stress that it was incredibly difficult to narrow this down.  I like a really wide array of music, mostly under the general ‘rock’ umbrella, but not always; some others that I considered were Daughter, Nirvana, Joseph, Sia, Ben Howard, Troye Sivan, Iron and Wine, First Aid Kit, Oasis, Soley, Ms Mr, Metric, Chelsea Wolfe, One Direction (really), Razorlight, Woodkid, Arcade Fire, James Vincent McMorrow, London Grammar, etc etc etc.

What kind of music do you guys like?

book review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

US pub date: February 14, 2017

★★★★☆

I can’t decide whether to begin this review by saying that Lincoln in the Bardo is ‘the most unique’ book I’ve ever read, or ‘the weirdest.’ So we’re going to go with both, because it is. Both unique and deeply weird. I’m starting this review completely unsure of the star rating I’m going to end up giving it by the end, because I’m finding it incredibly difficult to evaluate a book that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s not wholly novel, or wholly poetry, or wholly play, but some strange fusion, something in between. A literary ‘bardo’ of sorts, if you will.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie dies, and there are some accounts of Lincoln going to visit his son’s body in the cemetery. George Saunders takes this small detail of Lincoln’s life and runs with it, turning it into a bizarrely exhilarating literary exploration of life, death, and grief. Combining this snippet of American history with the Tibetan concept of the bardo, the liminal state between life and death, Lincoln in the Bardo is told by a chorus of voices, inhabitants of the cemetery, who observe Lincoln’s mourning.

I’m not going to pretend that I understood this book completely. I think I could read it ten more times and still not fully understand it. I think at least part of that had to do with the fact that I was so far out of my wheelhouse with this one. I’m pretty abysmal with American history, so I found myself wondering which ‘citations’ are fact and which are fiction; which names mentioned are real people and which are Saunders’ inventions. I’m also unclear as to whether how much of this ambiguity was intentional, and how much was me just being obtuse. But it certainly made for a confusing read at times. I’m not even sure that being a Civil War buff is necessary to this reading experience – I’m scrolling through reviews and getting the impression that there are plenty of people who loved this book who weren’t terribly familiar with Lincoln’s life beforehand. I guess it’s just my own personal hangup. I felt like I was stumbling around blindly for a good part of this novel, which was sort of unsettling.

If I had to try to simplify this book, which is no easy feat, I’d say that it’s about the commonality of the human experience; the unifying factors that transcend social status and race and culture. That’s what really resonated with me, at least. While I thought the first part was slow and perhaps too bogged down with irrelevant details, there were certain passages of part 2 that struck me so deeply it was absolutely gut-wrenching. Saunders’ prose is absolutely gorgeous, both genuinely moving and also darkly comedic at times, and I envy that ability of his. I also envy his ability to say so much in so few words. This isn’t a particularly long book, all things considered, but it’s still one of the most thematically rich things I’ve ever read. I’m going to be thinking about this one for weeks.

I didn’t fully love this book and remain rather conflicted, but I’m finding myself unable to go lower than 4 stars, because it’s undeniably the most innovative and thought-provoking thing I’ve read in ages. For me it was frustrating but rewarding.

Also. I wouldn’t have picked this one up if it weren’t for Sam’s gorgeous review – check it out!

+ link to review on goodreads