book review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★☆☆☆
Penguin Books, 2017

 

Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.

Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.

That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.

mini reviews #4: horror classics and other fiction

Time for the next installment!  See all my previous mini reviews here, and add me on Goodreads to see all my reviews as soon as I post them.

36605525CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata
originally published in Japanese, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
★★★★☆
date read: October 28, 2018
Grove Press, 2018

Sayaka Murata has a lot to say about the role of the individual in society and contrived societal expectations, and she says it all in under 200 pages with poignancy and humor. Our protagonist Keiko is considered an irregularity by her family and friends, as she doesn’t aspire to anything in life other than to continue working for the convenience store that has employed her for 18 years. Keiko takes solace in the routine and regularity of her job, and embraces the ways in which her identity is shaped by the corporate world. This is a charming and offbeat and quietly sad meditation on the cost of acceptance, the illusion of normalcy, and the pressures we all feel to conform. (I understand the comparison to Eleanor Oliphant, though I found Convenience Store Woman sharper and more convincing.)

 

897171THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
★★★★☆
date read: November 4, 2018
Penguin Classics, 2006
originally published in 1959

I’d been told time and again that this was going to be one of the most terrifying haunted house stories I was ever going to read, so I think my mixed reaction comes more from mismanaged expectations than anything. This story was not remotely scary. (But also, I’m just never really scared by horror in the way I’d like to be.) But I did find this to be a positively harrowing and unexpected psychological thriller which deftly explores isolation, sanity, and repression, through the eyes of a fascinating unreliable narrator. And the conclusion was positively haunting and breathtaking. I just wish I’d had a better idea of what I was signing up for – I doubt I would have been so impatient with the lengthy exposition had I known what a character study this was going to be. I’m almost definitely going to want to revisit this one at some point.

 

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FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley
★★★★★
date read: November 15, 2018
Harper Perennial, 2018
originally published 1818

Not so surprisingly, I got a lot more out of this at 26 than I did at 15.

 

 

 

32075854MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz
★★★★☆
date read: November 25, 2018
Harper, 2016

Magpie Murders was a fun, unexpected, and delightfully meta love letter to classic whodunnits and of course to the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie. You get two novels for the price of one with this one, and each is twisty, clever, and engaging – not equally so, I actually thought the novel within the novel offered more intrigue and less predictability. Though watching literary-agent-turned-amateur-detective Susan investigate the mysterious death of her top selling author was fantastically entertaining. A must-read for all mystery fans!

 

35297339ASYMMETRY by Lisa Halliday
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 13, 2018
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Nope, not for me I’m afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn’t warrant half as much tedium as what I found myself subjected to. I ‘got it’ but I didn’t find the payoff rewarding at all. There’s a good argument to be made that the first two sections were badly written on purpose (once you figure out from the third section the thread that connects the two disparate stories) but if poorly executed structural innovation is all it takes for a book to be lauded as a masterpiece these days I think we need to raise that bar just a little bit higher.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think?  Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

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THE STRANGER INSIDE by Laura Benedict
★★☆☆☆
Mulholland, February 5, 2019

 

The Stranger Inside has a pretty enticing premise: Kimber Hannon returns home from a week away only to find herself locked out of her house. When she notices someone inside she calls the police, who get him to open the door; he produces the paperwork complete with Kimber’s forged signature and insists that he’s renting the house for six months. Overcome with frustration, Kimber rushes inside her house, only to have the man grab her and whisper in her ear ‘I saw what you did.’

So that was a great opening, but it’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid. Which was more of a mess, the plot or the characters? Let’s start with the latter: Kimber has to win some kind of award for being the most insufferable protagonist in literary history. I truly do not believe that a protagonist needs to be ‘likable,’ but they sure as hell need to be interesting or sympathetic or something to hook the reader, especially in a thriller. I could not have cared less about Kimber: she’s selfish, remorseless, and emotionally immature, and why should I care that it all stems from a troubled adolescence when none of it is satisfactorily examined. At one point she befriends the wife of a man she had an affair with just because she thinks it would be funny to get back at him, without a second thought about the wife’s feelings, and we’re supposed to sympathize with her when she starts to realize this woman is actually a person? I really did not get the impression that Kimber was deliberately constructed to be a compelling antiheroine; I think she was supposed to be a flawed person who still deserved our sympathy, after everything. It didn’t work.

The plot itself was all kinds of ridiculous, with varying degrees of success; at times it was ridiculous and fun but at other times it was just ridiculous and boring. There were just too many convenient plot devices and moments that demanded suspension of disbelief. The pace at which information was revealed was haphazard at best, and it was a shame, because even the moments that should have been shocking were neutered by weak storytelling.

Now I’m going to end this review by going into spoiler territory, which I don’t often do, so that just goes to show how much the ending pissed me off.  [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] Regarding the twist that Kimber didn’t actually kill Michelle: Why does Kimber deserve this narrative absolution?! She hasn’t displayed an OUNCE of guilt throughout the entire book; at one point when she’s accused of being a murderer, this is Kimber’s reaction: “[S]he has never imagined her sister’s death to be a murder, herself an actual murderer. In her head it’s always I killed Michelle or I accidentally killed Michelle or I took my sister’s life.” … how does that make it ok?! You literally pushed your sister off a cliff?!?! I’m pretty sure if I killed my (nonexistent) sister I’d be eaten up with guilt, regardless of how ‘accidental’ it was? Maybe the potential emotional impact of this ending could have been earned if there were even a hint of a possibility that Kimber cared anything for Michelle, but it felt like (literally) handing a get out of jail free card to a person you desperately want to see go to jail. Not even remotely satisfying. 

Also, love that the mentally ill character turns out to be evil. Real original, that!! [END SPOILER]

Thank you to Netgalley and Mulholland Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

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THE END OF LONELINESS by Benedict Wells
translated by Charlotte Collins
★★★★☆
Penguin Books, January 29, 2019

 

Well, this utterly wrecked me. What a beautiful book.

The End of Loneliness, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, follows three siblings growing up in Munich, whose parents die in a car accident, leaving them orphaned and forced to attend boarding school. The focus is on Jules, the youngest sibling, who’s more of an observer than a participant in his own life; after his parents’ death he turns inward and fixates on a parallel narrative that he’s crafted of what his life would have been like had they survived. At boarding school he meets Alva, another loner who he’s able to connect with as he and his siblings grow apart, but after school they lose touch and Jules is once more on his own.

With a focus on the complex dynamics between the three siblings, Benedict Wells deftly explores the ripple effect of loss and grief. He also plays with the fallibility of memory in a way that recalls Kazuo Ishiguro, as Jules is recounting events from his childhood years later, and eventually certain cracks begin to form in his carefully curated narrative that suggest he may have chosen to remember certain events in a way that was convenient to him. This is a deeply melancholy book that gives little respite in its misery, but I found its emotional honesty refreshing. And with Jules’ retrospective narration, the grief discussed feels more like a bruise than an open wound (it’s a painful book to read, but not as visceral as something like A Little Life). It did bring me to tears at one point, but it wasn’t the kind of painful that I lost sleep over; it’s more of a quiet kind of haunting that slowly seeps under your skin.

My one criticism is that the end gets a bit twee and Wells insists on wrapping everything up a bit too neatly; maybe he’s playing with the idea that one of the characters floats around, that life is a zero-sum game; maybe he thinks his characters have all suffered enough to have earned a neat ending. But as a reader I ironically feel less fulfilled with the more closure I get, so I would have preferred things to end on a slightly more somber note. 4.5 stars – rounded down for now but maybe I’ll change it depending on how this stays with me.

Also – my advice going into this book is to avoid reading the Goodreads summary if possible (or maybe just read the first paragraph), as it essentially gives a paint by numbers account of the entire plot. It’s not that I felt spoiled while reading – it’s more driven by character than plot anyway – but it’s just unnecessary to give that much away when the book is less than 300 pages to begin with.

Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon
★★★★☆
Scribner, 2018

 

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever attempted to write. Probably because, as my friend Hannah so aptly put it in her own review, this book was not written for me. But that’s what was so admirable about it. Kiese Laymon states clearly in the prologue to his memoir that he has no intention of writing a sanitized, palatable version of events; it’s almost painful in its honesty but it’s for this reason that I think this book is so crucial and necessary (especially for non-black readers).

Heavy is Laymon’s visceral and fearless attempt at reckoning with a number of issues that have plagued him his entire life – his relationship with his mother whose uncompromising expectations for her son often resulted in abuse, his fraught relationship with his own body, addiction, trauma, poverty, education, masculinity, and ultimately what it means to be black in America. The honesty and nuance with which he examines anecdotes from his childhood, even more than the anecdotes themselves, make this an unforgettable read.

(4 stars instead of 5 because ratings are subjective and I never ever end up connecting with audiobooks as well as when I’m reading printed text, which isn’t to say that Kiese Laymon did a bad job with the narration – on the contrary he was a joy to listen to – but I’m just not an auditory person. Anyway, this was brilliant.)

book review: Cherry by Nico Walker

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CHERRY by Nico Walker
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018

 

Nico Walker is currently serving time in prison for bank robbery; his debut novel Cherry is essentially his fictionalized autobiography, in which the unnamed narrator dispassionately recounts dropping out of college, enlisting in the army, shipping out to Iraq, serving as an army medic, returning home, and developing PTSD as well as an opioid addiction.

Cherry is a deeply uncomfortable book to read on just about every level. The war scenes and depictions of drug abuse are graphic, the language is relentlessly profane, the narrator’s pervasive misogyny goes unchallenged. This is not a book about redemption or remorse or lessons learned or new beginnings; it’s about waste and abuse and mutually destructive relationships and squandered potential. This narrator hits rock bottom so many times that ‘rock bottom’ loses all meaning, and as he isn’t guided by any kind of recognizable moral compass you aren’t even sure if you should be rooting for him in the first place. You’re just kind of along for this ride that figuratively culminates in a train wreck.

Probably the most noteworthy thing about this book aside from the author’s background is its unique narrative voice – Walker blends his disaffected staccato with an urgency that keeps you turning pages, devouring the horror and humor and unexpected moments of tenderness. This is the kind of book that you feel a bit guilty for loving but at the same time you can’t deny that there’s something special about it.

book review: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene
★★★★☆
Penguin Classics, 2004
originally published in 1955

 

Set during the First Indochina War, The Quiet American is narrated by the cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler, who meets the young idealistic American agent Alden Pyle. The novel’s larger conflict is centered on the French and American invasion of Vietnam, which is echoed microcosmically in the conflict that arises between Fowler and Pyle when they both fall in love with the same Vietnamese woman, Phuong.

I loved Greene’s writing, which was sparse but filled with sharp observations and imagery:

“That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

There is so much here that resonates regarding this novel’s sociopolitical context (Greene’s observations on the destructive nature of colonialism read as both historic and prescient, over 60 years after it was published), but it was the character work that I found the most arresting. Fowler and Pyle are both emblematic of their countries – Fowler is jaded but also delusional enough to have convinced himself of his own neutrality in the war; Pyle is brash, naive, well-meaning, and disruptive. Phuong’s own character is rather anemically constructed, a source of frustration for the modern reader but probably a deliberate choice on Greene’s part as Fowler and Pyle both project onto her, attempt to possess her, while barely able to communicate with her. Surprising and inevitable all at once, the trajectory of Pyle and Fowler’s characters and the dynamic between them remains the singular point of intrigue throughout the novel, for those of us less interested in the military detail that obviously transfixed Greene. That said, if this is a historic period that interests you more than it does me, this is a must-read.

This was my first Graham Greene but it certainly won’t be my last – I just found this so accomplished and well-constructed. The Quiet American is a subtle and affecting meditation on war and morality; it’s a cautionary tale that was criticized upon its publication for being anti-American, and it’s going to remain relevant until we finally listen to it.

Book Postscript 2018 Tag

One last 2018 wrap up post!  This tag was created by Adam @ Memento Mori on booktube – I’m not sure if anyone else in the blogging world has adapted it but I thought it sounded like a really fantastic way to highlight some of those books that tend to fall through the cracks at this best and worst list time of year.

1. The longest book you read this year and the book that took you the longest to finish.

According to Goodreads the longest book I read (and I am so embarrassed by this since the page count isn’t even that crazy) is Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, coming in at 582 pages.  That obviously includes the intro, etc, but I did read this cover to cover.

The book that took me the longest to finish was probably Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which I apparently started on June 30 and finished on October 30.  As I explained in my review I was really enjoying this and then I just fell into a period where I wasn’t in the mood to read it at all, but once I got back into it I started loving it again.

375335872. A book you read in 2018 that was outside of your comfort zone.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso: the only graphic novel I’d ever read before wasn’t even a graphic novel, it was a graphic memoir, and that was Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, so this was a pretty big change from my usual fare.  I enjoyed this, it didn’t change my life or anything and I’m not convinced it earned its spot on the Man Booker longlist, but I’d definitely be interested in reading more graphic novels going forward.

3. How many books did you re-read in 2018?

Only 4 – The Odyssey, Antigone, and the Bakkhai, translated by Emily Wilson, Robert Bagg, and Anne Carson respectively, as well as Macbeth by Shakespeare.  Almost worryingly on-brand.

4. Favorite re-read of 2018.

All 4 for different reasons.  The Odyssey because I think Emily Wilson is superb and one part of her translator’s note (below) nearly made me cry; Antigone because I was rereading it after finishing Home Fire and pairing them together really enriched both texts (and because I was coming off a really fucking stupid argument about how I apparently do not understand Antigone in the slightest, which I just found amusing); the Bakkhai because I am worshipful of what Anne Carson can do with words; and Macbeth because I reread it in preparation for seeing Sleep No More the second time which I got so much more out of with the text fresh in my mind.

It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail’s one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.” – Emily Wilson

5. A book you read for the first time in 2018 that you look forward to re-reading in the future.

The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Milkman by Anna Burns, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Also, I anticipate reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley at least two more times (and I have already read it twice).  First because I used one of my audible credits long ago to get the audiobook since it’s narrated by Dan Stevens and I enjoy his voice immensely.  And second because I want to read the original 1818 text at some point.

6. Favorite single short story or novella that you read in 2018.

I love this question.  I’m torn between these two:

The Universal Story from The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith: A man buys a secondhand copy of The Great Gatsby in a used bookshop.  The narrative switches focus about a hundred times in a couple of pages and it’s just spectacular.  I don’t know how to explain this.  Just read it.

Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, from The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Jay Rubin: A talented painter is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell.  As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices.

And, if it counts as a novella (what’s the qualification for being a novella as opposed to a short novel anyway, does anyone know?  Please tell me):

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: A teenage girl and her parents accompany an anthropology course on an excursion to Northumberland, where they live for a few weeks as Iron Age Britons once did.  This book is subtle and harrowing all at once.

326203327. Mass Appeal: A book you liked and would recommend to a wide variety of readers.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.  I have seen a couple of negative reviews of this, but for the most part I’d say it’s near-universally adored, and for good reason.  You’re going to want to put your skepticism aside and just give this one a try, because it actually does live up to the hype.  The characters are wonderfully vivid and the story itself is immersive and heartbreaking and just lovely.  I read this in two days and I couldn’t put it down.

8. Specialized Appeal: A book you liked but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone.

I’m going to go with two different retellings of Euripides’ Medea:

Medea by Christa Wolf: It’s not that I think you wouldn’t find this book enjoyable if you don’t have a working knowledge of/obsession with the Medea myth, because I do think it’s exquisitely written regardless, but the real joy for me in reading this was seeing Wolf’s unique subversion of the familiar story, so I would hesitate to recommend this to anyone not already interested in Greek mythology, as opposed to something like Circe which holds a much wider commercial appeal.

By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr.  This is one of the best plays I have ever read, but I think you would need to share my morbid fascination with all things tragic and macabre to appreciate this downer.

9. Reflect on your year as a bookish content creator (goals met, good/bad memories, favorite videos blog posts you made, etc).

This was a perfectly steady year for my blog – I didn’t make many changes, but I did continue to post regularly and I’m very happy with that.  I also decided this year that rather than following Top 5 Wednesday etc. I have more fun when I’m inspired to create my own book lists for no particular reason.

One such list that I’m proud of is my Adult Books About Young Adults post which I wrote in the hopes of lessening the misconception that all adult literature is about 40 year old straight white men.

I’m also proud of finishing the Man Booker longlist in time for the winner announcement, as it was the first time I’ve ever read a literary prize longlist in its entirety: in case you missed that you can read my longlist reaction, shortlist reaction, longlist recap/winner prediction, and reaction to the winner announcement.  I’m still pleased with myself for predicting the winner correctly.

I didn’t quite manage the Women’s Prize longlist, but I came close – you can see my shortlist reaction, shortlist review/winner prediction (I did not guess correctly), and reaction to the winner.

I do quite love these two literary prizes and I had a lot of fun with both this year.

10. Tag some fellow bookish content creators.

Aurora | Marija | Hannah  | Hannah| Emily | Sarah | Ren (I’m not sure if you do tags?)

Definitely feel free to skip it etc.  And tagging anyone else who wants to do this!

book review: Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

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TERRITORY OF LIGHT by Yuko Tsushima
translated by Geraldine Harcourt
★★★☆☆
Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, February 12, 2019

 

I enjoyed Territory of Light and found it sufficiently absorbing, but now I’m finding that I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. It’s a simple story about motherhood told from the perspective of a newly single woman coming to terms with the failure of her marriage – it’s a quiet, meditative work that was originally published in Japanese in 1979, and while I felt that this story’s cultural context was readily apparent as I was reading, it does have an introspective universality in its depiction of isolation that I think will resonate with a lot of modern, non-Japanese readers.

I will say, one thing about the fragmented narration started to grate on me – though this takes place over the course of a year and we are theoretically seeing events unfold in real time, the narrator would often say something like ‘just two weeks ago, I got a call from my daughter’s daycare,’ and then we would rewind two weeks and she would tell us the daycare story… even though we were technically with the narrator at the time those events happened? It fractures the chronology in a way that doesn’t totally make sense to me and adds an unnecessary level of telling rather than showing.

But still, I thought this was a good introduction to Yuko Tsushima, and I’ll definitely look into reading more from her.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

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THE MAZE AT WINDERMERE
by Gregory Blake Smith
★★★★☆
2018, Viking

 

On the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can’t help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory Blake Smith has created something that’s an absolute masterclass of storytelling – he weaves together seemingly unrelated plotlines (all centered in Newport Rhode Island) from 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778 and 1692 in ways both subtle and forthright, and the precision with which he manages this is feat is undeniable.

But the stories themselves from each timeline vary in the level of engagement they offer. To my surprise, I fell head over heels in love with the 2011 plot, which follows the strange friendship between a nearly retired tennis pro, Sandy, and an heiress with cerebral palsy. This unconventional socialite, Alice, has to be one of the most vivid characters I have ever read; I couldn’t get her out of my head when I was reading this book and I still can’t now that I’ve finished. I loved everything about their odd dynamic and tumultuous, melodramatic, tragic relationship. This motivations of a secondary character in this storyline also provides the book with one of its greatest sources of intrigue which goes on to feed into a positively spectacular ambiguous ending that I can’t talk about without spoiling. But, it was perfection.

Unfortunately, all of the past timelines paled in comparison. 1896 follows a gay man who’s attempting to marry into high society; 1863 follows a fictionalization of Henry James, an overt nod to the thematic parallels to Daisy Miller that litter the different narratives; 1778 follows a British officer during the American Revolution (I found him the most tiresome); and 1692 follows a newly orphaned Quaker girl. Each of these narratives had moments of searing brilliance, but at the same time, none of them was able to offer the same emotional draw as the present-day storyline.

That said, the structure of this book is nothing short of a delight for readers who enjoy riddles and puzzles and similar literary exercises. I’m almost definitely going to want to re-read this at some point after I’ve read Daisy Miller, because I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface.