book review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut
★★★★☆
Dial Press, 1998
originally published in 1963

 

This is one of those books that’s more interesting to think about than it is to read. The main word I’d use to describe this deceptively short book is tedious – though Vonnegut hits his mark with the humor more often than not, the meandering, repetitive style gets old, and even the once-funny jokes start to become stale. It’s also the kind of classic that hasn’t aged well, at all; jokes about dwarfism and sexist remarks abound – it’s inevitably going to induce more than a few cringes from the modern reader.

So, why 4 stars? Because it’s fascinating and smart as hell. This novel is filled to the brim with intriguing, relevant, timeless ideas: how religion adapts to suit the needs of the people, conceptions of social identity and what it means to belong to a group, the paradoxical role of science in how it’s used by humanity – both for medicine and for warfare. The interplay between science and religion in this novel is done so well, as is the bizarre fusion of absurdity and realism. This was my first Vonnegut, and I can’t help but to think I would have enjoyed his work a bit more if I’d read it when I was a teenager, but it was every bit as thought-provoking as I’d been led to believe and I’ll certainly be looking into reading more of his works at some point.

I read this novel as a part of the Traveling Book Review organized by Kaleena over at Reader Voracious: Kaleena shipped out her copy of Cat’s Cradle and a group of us are sending it around and scribbling notes in the margins while we read.  It was such fun!  I was only the third on the list, so I’m excited to see what everyone else thinks.

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wrap up: October 2018

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers ★★★☆☆ | review
  • The Line That Held Us by David Joy ★★☆☆ | review
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson ★★★☆☆ | review
  • Dopesick by Beth Macy  | review
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater ★★★★☆ | review
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh ★★★★☆ | review
  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy ★★★★☆ | review
  • Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ★★★★☆ | review

Favorite: Dopesick by Beth Macy
Honorable Mentions: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Least favorite: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

OCTOBER TOTAL: 13
YEARLY TOTAL: 110

After the spectacularly poor reading month that was September, I read over twice as many books in October.  Quality-wise it was a bit all over the place, but one huge milestone that I completed was reading the entire Man Booker longlist before the winner announcement – you can read my thoughts on the longlist here, and my reaction to Milkman winning here, in case you missed it.

Currently reading: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (re-read), and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

What was the best book you read in October?  Comment and let me know!

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book review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy
★★★★☆
William Collins, 2015
originally published in 1874

 

With how long this has been sitting on my currently reading shelf (a little over 4 months, I do believe) I’m sure you all were expecting me to come back with a scathing review. But it’s quite the contrary – I’m happy to report that this was wonderful. It’s just that I was in the mood to read this and then I wasn’t and then I was again, and that’s that mystery solved. This was my first Thomas Hardy, and I chose it because I’d already seen the Carey Mulligan film and fell very much in love with the elaborate soap opera that is Bathsheba Everdene’s life. Sorry if this is slanderous, but the frankly elaborate ways in which she and Oak are pushed together and pulled apart throughout this book are something straight out of EastEnders, and it was delightful.

But even though I already knew the story, I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. I also found Bathsheba to be one of the most complex heroines from any classic novel I’ve read, and her thoroughly compelling journey for peace and love as she came to better understand herself was just a constant source of joy to read. It goes without saying that this male-authored work from 1874 is not a Feminist Novel, but the sheer compassion with which Bathsheba’s character arc is crafted was something of a surprise to me, in a good way. I certainly wasn’t expecting lines like this:

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Or this:

“‘But a husband–’
‘Well!’
‘Why, he’d always be there, as you say; whenever I looked up, there he’d be.’
‘Of course he would – I, that is.’
‘Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry – at least yet.'”

(That may be the single most iconic exchange I’ve ever read.)

I occasionally found Hardy’s writing a bit overwrought, but the dialogue was lively and the pastoral setting was brought to life spectacularly. Despite the fact that this is a book filled with vibrant characters and dramatic plot twists, it’s ultimately rather slow-paced, so I don’t really regret the (excessively) languid pace at which I read it. I’m looking forward to reading more of Hardy, probably Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure next.

book review: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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THE WICKED COMETH by Laura Carlin
★★☆☆☆
Hodder & Stoughton, 2018 (UK)

 

The Wicked Cometh could have been a perfectly adequate novel had it been written by someone with a modicum more talent for storytelling. It’s unfortunate that a lesbian neo-Victorian thriller should be this devoid of passion and suspense, but as it stands, this was a rather dull and middling read.

From the very first page, everything about this book feels contrived. The premise is frankly absurd: a down on her luck young woman named Hester living in the slums of London gets into an accident one day and is rescued by a handsome and charismatic doctor who insists that she stay with his family to recuperate, and then be tutored by his sister so she has the opportunity to improve her station in life, and if that all sounds a little convenient, it’s because this entire book is driven by coincidence and plot devices. Characters go through the motions as if in a pre-rehearsed pantomime; no one at any point feels present. The decisions they make seem to be solely in the interest of driving the plot forward; all rationality and logic is utterly abandoned to tell this story.

The writing itself is both stilted and melodramatic, a combination that lends itself beautifully to 337 pages (not that I was counting) of telling rather than showing. There isn’t a single personality trait to be found in any one of these characters, but even so, we are simply bashed over the head with Hester’s heavy-handed narration in which she extols the virtues of her tutor Rebekah. But even that is a bit misleading, because I’m not sure what these virtues are, exactly; only that Rebekah is the greatest person to ever have lived. Hester also likes to spell out exactly what is happening at any given time, in case we missed it: “With one faithless action I have changed the direction of both our destinies and unwittingly discarded my chance of future happiness.” This isn’t the kind of thing you should have to say; you should have faith as an author that this is being communicated by the narrative itself. You shouldn’t need your characters to narrate the story to the reader as they’re living it.

I really did want to love this, but frankly the whole thing felt silly and ridiculous, and not at all the sinister and atmospheric gothic novel I had been hoping for. Two stars for the novelty of seeing an LGBT romance in a historical fiction novel where homophobia isn’t the main driving force in the narrative. Otherwise this was just stale and derivative.

book review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★★★☆
Penguin Press, 2015

 

I didn’t love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excels at crafting female characters who are sympathetic enough to warrant investment but abhorrent enough to shatter the conception that even the most contentious of antiheroines must above all else be likable. There’s nothing sexy or pleasant or charming about our titular Eileen, and it’s a breath of fresh air. The novel follows Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old friendless young woman living in rural Massachusetts in the 1960s, working at a boys’ prison she calls Moorehead by day and caring for her cruel alcoholic father by night. She daydreams of escaping the monotony of her everyday existence, until one day the alluring Rebecca takes a position as a counselor at Moorehead and Eileen finds herself with a new fixation.

In contrast to the richly textured Eileen, her foil Rebecca is drawn rather simply, but with precision. She’s beautiful and she wears all the right clothes and says all the right things. Eileen doesn’t allow herself to consider that Rebecca is anything less than perfect or that her intentions are anything less than noble, but as these events are being narrated to us by a much older Eileen, the reader is painfully aware that certain limitations in young-Eileen’s perspective are going to lead inexorably to a tragic conclusion. But we also know that both Eileen and Rebecca make it out alive, so the question becomes how their dynamic is able to culminate in catastrophe that spares them both.

Moshfegh rises to the challenge, as the whole thing slowly builds toward a chilling and mesmerizing climax, as dark as it is unexpected. My only hangup with this novel is the repetition in its descriptions of Eileen’s home life. Maybe it’s meant to reflect the tedium that Eileen herself feels, or maybe it’s an indication that this would have worked better as a short story, as others have suggested. But still, I really enjoyed this, as both a character study and a commentary on the bizarre and contradictory ways women are socialized to view themselves and others. This is better read as a character-driven literary novel than a thriller, but even so, I was thrilled by it.

My Bad Reading Habits

I was tagged by Callum to share some of my bad reading habits, so, without further ado…

Avoiding long books: Callum mentioned this one as well, and I think it’s fairly common in this community.  I think the pressures we all feel to read as many books as possible are for the most part self-imposed, because does anyone actually care how many books any of us read in a year?  But when you’re surrounded by the Goodreads reading challenge and quantitative monthly wrap-ups, and you’re constantly seeing how many books other people in this community are reading, it’s hard to stop yourself from chasing some arbitrary high number.  I met my 2018 Goodreads goal back in July, I think, but still I find myself reaching for shorter books solely because they’re shorter and I’ll be able to read more of them.  Which is absurd.  Especially for me personally, as A LOT of my all-time favorite books are 500+ pages (Les Mis, A Little Life, Of Human Bondage, East of Eden, The Pillars of the Earth, etc etc etc).

Counting down the pages until the end of a chapter: (This goes hand in hand with my hatred of deckled edges, which make this exercise more difficult.)  I am obsessed with casually thumbing through to the end of the chapter I’m on and counting how many pages I have left.  I’m not someone who has to read to the end of the chapter before putting the book down, but still, I don’t think I have ever started a chapter in my life without counting how many pages it is.

Hoarding books my friends have lent me: Does anyone else feel like going to the post office is a Herculean task or is that just me?  I don’t even know.  The plus side is that I will never lose your books; I have all my borrowed books in a pile and I know exactly where they are.  The downside is they will sit in that pile for up to three years unless you come to my house to collect them yourself.  Sorry Patrick.  I’m working on it.

Not reading what I want to read: This one feels especially ridiculous to type out because reading and blogging are both hobbies, so you’d think I’d allow myself the luxury of reading what I feel like reading at any given time, but I know I’m not alone in this.  I spread myself way too thin among all of my reading goals and obligations.  If you propose a buddy read, I’ll say yes; if there’s a literary award I’m interested in following, I’ll probably try to read the longlist; if there’s a community-wide reading challenge like Women in Translation Month or Victober or Nonfiction November, I’ll find myself bending over backward to try to participate.  The problem for me is that my reading tastes are so varied – I read everything from classics to thrillers to fantasy to literary fiction to memoirs – so I think I try to participate in multiple reading challenges to keep my reading as broad as possible.  But the downside is that if I’m ever in the mood to, say, go down a rabbit hole and read nothing but depressing Irish literary fiction for a month, I feel like I can’t do that, and I end up forcing myself to read a thriller when the last thing I feel like reading is a thriller.

I’d love to know the bad reading habits of Hannah, Patrick, Emily, Zuky, and Eleanor.  Feel free to pass of course, no hard feelings.

What are some of your bad reading habits?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2012

 

I’m going to do something a bit odd here and base my rating for this book more on what I think it has the potential to become than how much I actually enjoyed it. Because this feels more like a 400 page prologue than it does an actual book. But I’m willing to overlook the spectacularly poor pacing and haphazard plotting if the rest of the series actually builds on the foundation Stiefvater set up here, and she definitely hooked me enough that I want to keep going with it.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of this premise (apparently this series is about a group of students trying to find a dead Welsh king, WHO KNEW, not me), and I think the execution was a bit of a mess. The first 200 pages are total filler; the villain’s backstory is awkwardly shoehorned in without much exploration; perspective shifts aren’t employed effectively (sometimes I couldn’t tell whose head we were in until the end of a chapter); information that could have been withheld in order to build tension is readily offered up to the reader at all times; and the ending just kind of… plateaus without much of a climax. Stiefvater can clearly write (though I actually preferred her prose in The Scorpio Races) but I don’t think The Raven Boys is a well-constructed book at all.

But the characters I think are intriguing. By ‘intriguing’ I mean ‘have the potential to become interesting.’ Because right now a lot of them still feel like tropes – you’ve got the quirky loner girl, the leader, the asshole, the one with money problems, and… that’s just about it – but judging from others’ assessment of the series, it does seem like some character development is on the horizon. But what’s compelling me more than the characters themselves are the dynamics between them. So even though I wasn’t totally wowed by this book, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes me want to keep going with it… hopefully the second book picks up.