book review: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

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THE WATER CURE by Sophie Mackintosh
★★★★☆
Doubleday Books, January 8, 2019

 

The Water Cure was nothing like I expected, but I ended up enjoying it all the more for that. This is a vaguely unsettling, eerie tale of three sisters who were raised by their parents on a remote island to fear all men other than their father. They believe the outside world is dangerous and toxic, and they regularly perform painful rituals and ‘therapies’ to cleanse themselves. But then their father vanishes without a trace and three strange men wash up on their shore, and the novel takes place over the span of the week that follows.

The biggest surprise for me was that I was expecting a Handmaid’s Tale-esque feminist dystopia, but in reality I wouldn’t actually describe this book as a dystopia at all. I think a certain amount of ambiguity in this regard is intentional, especially at first, and I think there is going to be some healthy debate about how you can read this book, as a lot of questions deliberately go unanswered. But if the appeal of dystopias to you is the worldbuilding and big picture stuff, The Water Cure will undoubtedly disappoint. To me this felt more like an allegorical contemporary (or if not contemporary, at least set in the very near-future) whose strength lies more in its exploration of complex interpersonal dynamics than in its merit as a dystopic text. I’d compare it to King Lear or The Beguiled (and I would not be surprised if Sofia Coppola directed an eventual film adaptation) over The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power.

But for me, its inability to fit neatly into the ‘feminist dystopia’ genre is only an asset. Sophie Mackintosh has created something strong and uniquely unsettling. Her prose is remarkably lyrical, and the insular setting she crafts is at once immersive and claustrophobic. This is a novel whose themes exist slightly below the surface, and though it has a lot to say about gender roles and social dynamics and what it means to exist in modern society as a woman, none of this leaps off the page at a quick glance. There’s an incredible amount of depth and subtlety here, especially for such a short novel.

The biggest problem – really, the only problem – I had with this novel was that I was occasionally unconvinced by the fact that these sisters had lived their entire lives so removed from society. Not only were their vocabularies littered with colloquial phrases in a way that seemed at odds from how their parents spoke, at times they drew generalizations about human nature in a way that didn’t ring true for someone with such a limited world view. But this is something I found myself forgiving more and more as the novel went on, as it ultimately had the air of a fable, and I didn’t find myself too hung up on the details.

Basically, don’t expect another Handmaid’s Tale, but don’t think it isn’t worth your time because of that. I actually liked The Water Cure better.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Sophie Mackintosh for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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wrap up: July 2018

How is July nearly over?!  Anyway, it was a 4 star kind of reading month.

 

Favorite: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Runner up: How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Least favorite: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

JULY TOTAL: 13
YEARLY TOTAL: 79

My Goodreads challenge goal was 75, so yay!

Currently reading: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

 

August is going to be a busy reading month – I have a lot of ARCs, planned buddy reads, and library holds coming in, plus I’d like to read a couple more Man Booker longlisters… wish me luck.

What’s the best book you guys read in July?  Comment and let me know!

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd

book review: Educated by Tara Westover

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EDUCATED by Tara Westover
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2018

 

Well, Tara Westover is certainly a remarkable woman with a remarkable story. It’s not difficult to see why Educated has been so well received, and if you’re interested in reading it I’d implore you to take my 3 stars with a grain of salt, as I mainly think I just wasn’t the right reader for this book.

Educated is Westover’s memoir of growing up in a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Though she was technically supposed to have been home-schooled, her lessons stopped when she was fairly young, and her sporadic self-teaching hardly was able to prepare her for setting foot in a classroom for the first time when she was accepted to BYU at 17. But we know from the blurb that she ends up getting a PhD from Cambridge, so from the beginning it’s clear that Westover’s memoir is in many ways going to be a success story. But it isn’t a smooth journey, owing to the ongoing abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father and older brother, well into adulthood.

The first half of this book chronicles Westover’s childhood, and to me this was undoubtedly the weaker half of the story. The anecdotes selected, though extreme and shocking and therefore compelling in a morbid way, I think rely a bit too heavily on their shock value to engage the reader. I felt this fell into that trap of too much recall/not enough analysis. Though Westover expertly evoked the setting of her childhood with details like her father’s rejection of hospitals and the sense of impending doom with which he navigated their survivalist life, the scene was set early on, and the sheer number of car crashes and burns and other accidents recounted actually served to bog down the narrative for me.

The second half, which details Westover’s experience with her education, improved the memoir in leaps and bounds. At this point in the story the self-reflection kicks into a higher gear, as Westover begins to reconcile her parents’ view of the world with her own experiences. This particular kind of resilience I guess resonated with me more than the kind of strength it took Westover to survive her childhood – I’m not diminishing that in any way, just to clarify, but I can’t deny that I found the second half of this memoir twice as stimulating as the first.

I’ve been browsing some of the negative reviews for this book, and noticing that there’s a common thread of not believing Westover’s account of things. And I admittedly get that. I would describe myself as a rather gullible person, but even I started questioning certain details in her story – more having to do with the smooth trajectory of her education than with her childhood abuse. I actually found the eccentric and violent survivalist family much more believable than the fact that someone who didn’t have a birth certificate for nearly a decade, who doesn’t even know her own birthday, was able to seamlessly enroll in college and obtain a passport. But despite my conflicting feelings about this, I think when you choose to read a memoir, you’re doing so with the knowledge that you only have the author’s truth. Occasionally you’ll hear stories about memoirs and nonfiction books being debunked, but for the most part, you’re never going to find out the objective truth behind the story you just read. So rather than torture myself over this, I’m choosing to believe Tara Westover, and believe that perseverance and passion is sometimes all it takes to turn your life around, difficult as the challenges may be. If you’re interested in that kind of story, Educated is definitely the memoir for you.

book review: The White Book by Han Kang

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THE WHITE BOOK by Han Kang
★★★★☆
Granta, May 2018

The White Book is Han Kang’s autobiographical meditation on the death of her newborn sister, who lived only for two hours. It’s a difficult book to review because it’s a difficult book to categorize. Part novel, part memoir, part poetry collection, The White Book ultimately comes together to form a poised and tender examination of grief and the transient nature of life and death.

If you’ve read The Vegetarian or Human Acts you’ll know exactly what to expect from Kang’s economical and unsentimental prose, translated brilliantly from the Korean by Deborah Smith. But The White Book is more abstract than either of its predecessors, fusing form and content to create a rather unique reading experience. Kang inserts black and white photographs; plays with the physical spacing of the text to assert a visual element into her novel, which only makes sense for a book which is thematically anchored by a color. There’s a sort of hypothetical narrative that runs through the text – Kang imagining a life for her sister – but it’s a rather abstract and experimental distillation of this idea, rather than a traditional plot-based narrative.

This didn’t hit me quite as hard as The Vegetarian or Human Acts, but I still found it striking and I think Han Kang is a genius and her working partnership with Deborah Smith is the gift that keeps on giving. I certainly hope they continue going through Kang’s back catalog and introducing her works to English language readers. I really believe she’s one of the more interesting writers working today – I always come away from her books with my mind reeling in the best possible way.

book review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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THE POPPY WAR by R.F. Kuang
2018, Harper Voyager
★★★★★

Well, this exceeded all of my expectations and then some. Despite a childhood love of Harry Potter which has persevered into adulthood, I very rarely get excited about fantasy. Even my ‘favorite’ fantasy novels tend to fall under the category of ‘it was objectively very good even if it wasn’t really my cup of tea.’ But with absolutely zero reservations, I loved this.

It helps that it’s a very ‘me’ kind of book. It’s darker than dark, it features an utterly merciless antiheroine who’s sympathetic enough to root for, it fuses fantastical elements with Chinese history and culture – especially drawing from the Second Sino-Japanese War – in a positively brilliant way (I’ve always had a thing for Chinese historical fiction which is what drew me to this book to begin with), it features a magical military academy and so much political strategy, and it’s so firmly rooted in compelling characters that the worldbuilding never overwhelms. In short: just about everything I could ever ask for.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan determined to get out of an arranged marriage, who tests into Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in her country of Nikan. It turns out acing the challenging test was the least of her worries; now Rin is mercilessly antagonized by her peers and some of her teachers for her dark skin and for the fact that she comes from one of the country’s poorest provinces. Things finally start to turn around for Rin under the tutelage of her one of the school’s more eccentric masters, but soon the students at Sinegard are thrown headfirst into a war that’s ravaging Nikan.

I didn’t even feel like I was reading fantasy for the first couple of chapters; the fantastical elements are slowly introduced as you’re drawn further and further into this nuanced magical system that Kuang has invented, which involves gods and shamans and a spirit world. I hate when a book is filled with fascinating concepts but they aren’t presented in an approachable way: that is certainly not the case here. This is every bit as readable and engaging as it is complex and intelligent.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Others have mentioned the drastic tonal shift between the first and second halves, and I have to agree that it’s rather dissonant. The first half feels a bit Harry Potter meets Chinese history, and admittedly the half of the novel that took place at Sinegard was the half I preferred. Then this book gets brutal – just about every trigger warning imaginable can be applied here – and while I was fully on board for that and understood how the violence depicted ultimately did serve the narrative, I don’t blame others for being a bit taken aback.

So it’s more of a 4.5, but I’m rounding up because I really adored this – I found it so engaging that I dropped everything else I was reading this week so I could focus on this (which I rarely do – I usually jump around between multiple books when I read). But this is just a stunning and stimulating piece of fantasy that asks difficult questions about religion, power, imperialism, war, and violence, and takes the reader on such an unexpectedly dark and compelling journey, I just can’t help but to love it. As someone who almost exclusively reads standalone novels I can’t remember the last time I said this, but I cannot wait for the sequel!

Man Booker 2018 Longlist Reaction

I wasn’t initially planning on making a reaction post about this, and I still don’t intend to go through the list title by title (if you’re curious about my thoughts on any title in particular though don’t hesitate to ask!)

But the more I think about this year’s list and the more reactions I read/watch, the more I feel like getting my thoughts down all in one place.

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Photo from the Man Booker website.

So, in case you missed it – The Man Booker 2018 longlist was announced!  And I think it caught everyone by surprise.  There are a lot of noteworthy elements in play: a graphic novel was longlisted for the first time, there’s also a crime novel (not a first, but still unexpected), there are four debuts, more female writers than male, no countries represented outside the UK/Ireland/US/Canada, and several big name authors who everyone thought were guaranteed a spot were overlooked (Barnes, Hollinghurst, Smith, Ward, et al).

Naturally, reactions have been completely split – a lot of people find the list fresh and exciting, while others find it sophomoric and believe it’s compromising the integrity of the Booker.  I’m firmly in the first camp.

I find the complaint that I keep seeing crop up, that the Man Booker is pandering to a non-literary crowd with this year’s longlist, is incredibly ironic since last year’s list in my opinion supports that claim much better.  Swing Time, Underground Railroad, Lincoln in the Bardo, etc., all of these titles were incredibly mainstream in a way that none of this year’s nominees are.  How many of your non-reader friends do you think are going to pick up From a Low and Quiet Sea or even Warlight?  I mean, obviously literary prizes do not exist in a vacuum, obviously judges look at what their selection as a whole says rather than just choosing the 13 ‘best’ titles.  Obviously this list shows a deliberate interest in debut authors and lesser known works.  But do I believe that this list is less ‘literary,’ less valuable than any that have come before, just because it acknowledges debuts above established white male writers?  Absolutely not.

Also, literary prizes are inherently subjective.  This isn’t anything new.  Judges each have their own strengths and weaknesses as readers, and expecting that subjectivity to be entirely removed from the selection process is utterly pointless.  This year’s panel of judges has a certain vision for the Booker, but who’s to say that next year’s panel is going to be similar?  I think the 2017 and 2018 longlists are night and day from one another – personally I find the 2018 list much more interesting – but all this talk of the Booker essentially jumping the shark in my opinion is totally premature.  It’s difficult to track ‘trends’ with a literary prize that uses a different judging panel every single year.

I don’t know – I just get tired of argument along the lines of ‘is this list really the best fiction published in the past year?’ (usually in reference to the Established White Male Authors who were overlooked) when the answer is always, always, always going to be of course not, of course it’s not the ‘best’ fiction, there is no such thing as the ‘best’ fiction.  171 titles were submitted for consideration this year, and I’m sure that each and every one of them has its merits and shortcomings.  A different panel of judges would have probably selected 13 different books altogether, but does the merit of that hypothetical list negate the merit and validity of the list we were given?

I think it’s an interesting list.  I like that it’s not what we expected.  I don’t think it’s perfect, not by a long shot, but I am looking forward to discovering at least a handful of great new books and authors.

What are your thoughts on the Man Booker longlist?  And the Man Booker (or even literary prizes) in general?  Comment and let me know!

How I Choose My Books Tag

Long time no tag!  I was tagged in this one by my friend Hadeer (whose answers are great) so let’s get started.

Find a book on your shelves with a blue pink cover. What made you pick up the book in the first place?

30962053Is there a reason this was changed from blue to pink?  Anyway, pink it is.  I’ll go with The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I actually don’t own a physical copy of this book, but every time I see it in a bookstore I think about buying it because I adore this cover so much.  But anyway, I only chose to read this because it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I ended up reading the entire shortlist this year.  I was actually on the fence about picking this one up – even though I love literary fiction and campus novels, the premise felt a bit ‘been there done that’ right down to what I thought was the rather cliche choice to set the story at Harvard rather than a number of other prestigious or even adequate universities.  But I actually found this story to be anything but stale – to me it was refreshing and honest, and I found myself reflected in the main character in a way I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I just love this book.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?

815309I just realized I should have used The Idiot for this question.  Oh well, I’ll go with something else.  On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.  It’s not that I expected to dislike it – just that my expectations were rather low as the only McEwan I’d ever read was Atonement a decade ago and I didn’t like it very much.  I only read On Chesil Beach so I could see the film adaptation because I love Saoirse Ronan (in predictable me fashion, I did not get around to seeing the film adaptation before it left theatres), but luckily I came away from it with a book I really love!

 

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random.  How did you discover this book?

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Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.  I haven’t read this yet, but it was one of the only titles that jumped out at me from last year’s Man Booker longlist so I couldn’t resist buying a copy.  It’s an Irish literary novel told entirely in one sentence, so, I could hardly resist that premise.  This has actually reminded me that I should make a point of reading this one sometime soon.  Has anyone else read it?

 

 

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?

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One of my best friends Abby recommended that I read her favorite book, East of Eden, and I absolutely adored it.  I was somewhat hesitant because I’d really disliked The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl (even though I had liked Of Mice and Men, but I considered that one to be the fluke), but East of Eden is in another league entirely.  If you think you hate Steinbeck but you haven’t read this, I implore you to give him one more chance – this book is a masterpiece.

 

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?

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Ali Smith is one of those authors who seems to have a godlike status in the literary community, so I was both excited and nervous about reading one of her novels for the first time.  Thankfully How to be both did live up to the hype; I don’t think this is a flawless book, but it is honestly one of the most innovative and thought-provoking things I’ve ever read and I cannot wait to dive further into Smith’s works.

 

 

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?

15797917Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.  I think I first heard this mentioned on booktube, and I was immediately drawn to the premise.  It’s a memoir by a woman whose entire family (her parents, her husband, her two children) were all killed in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka while on vacation.  Admittedly I’m a bit of a morbid individual who’ll read just about anything that focuses on death or grief or mourning or anything like that, and experiencing loss on this scale is just unimaginable to me, so I was really interested in hearing this woman’s story.  So I bought a used copy at my local bookstore and read it last week, and I found it just as harrowing and moving as you would expect.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?

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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  I don’t talk about this book enough for how much I adore it.  I first saw the BBC miniseries a few years ago and fell in love with the story and the characters enough to read the book right after, and I loved the book even more.  It’s not a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination – the pace is off, the length is excessive, anachronisms abound when it comes to the characters’ eating habits – but these imperfections didn’t particularly bother me since it’s just a damn good story.

 

Think of your all-time favorite books. When did you read these and why did you pick them up in the first place?

Just choosing three of many.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.  The Secret History had always been on my radar because it’s one of the few books set in Vermont (where I’m from) so I finally bit the bullet and read it about three years ago and I adored it.  Never Let Me Go I read when I was 14 because my mom loved it so she gave me the copy she read and I immediately fell in love.  The Heart’s Invisible Furies was obviously a book that was getting a lot of buzz last year, and being a sweeping epic set in Ireland I knew this book was going to be right up my alley.

Tagging: Hannah, Hannah, Callum, Marija, Sarah, Chelsea.