book review: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

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ON SWIFT HORSES by Shannon Pufahl
★☆☆☆☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I’m always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF’d this – I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn’t been assigned to review this for a publication. Which didn’t end up panning out, because I hated it too much.)

Basically, this book follows two characters, Muriel and Julius – Muriel is a young newlywed who’s recently moved from Kansas to San Diego with her husband, and Julius is her gay brother-in-law – and I’m not going to say any more than that, because apparently this is one of those cases where the dust jacket gives away the entire plot.

This may seem like a weird detail to get hung up on, but to me, this book’s most egregious offense was the author’s decision to write it in the present tense, especially given that she didn’t show much aptitude for it.  I felt like I was being forcibly dragged by the author from one sentence to the next.  Imagine looking at a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas.  It’s a suffocating view.

I just felt like this book was trying so hard to come across as Literary and Important, and this forced ‘lyrical’ writing style came at the expense of… literally everything else.  Plot, character development, setting.  You may have noticed the incredibly bland words I used to describe Muriel and Julius up above – ‘newlywed,’ ‘gay’ – but I’m afraid that after hundreds of pages I still do not know a single thing about either of these people’s personalities.  I know what they want from life, I guess, but each of their characters felt so clumsily crafted that there was never really anything to latch onto.  I don’t know a single thing about these characters or this narrative that I hadn’t gleaned from the summary.  What a terrific waste of time.

book review: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

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SALTWATER by Jessica Andrews
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, January 14, 2020

 

“It begins with our bodies. Skin on skin. My body burst from yours. Safe together in the violet dark and yet already there are spaces beginning to open between us. I am wet and glistening like a beetroot pulsing in soil. Fasting and gulping. There are wounds in your belly and welts around your nipples, puffy and purpling.”

So begins Saltwater, a generic coming-of-age tale that flits around between the key events in the protagonist Lucy’s life, growing up in Sunderland and Donegal before moving to London for university.  With a focus on Lucy’s relationship with her mother, there are chapters interspersed throughout the narrative where Lucy narrates directly to her mother from various stages in her life, beginning with this… colorful passage describing her own birth.  (Why do authors do this.)

So quite literally from page one I wasn’t getting on with this book.  I don’t necessarily believe there’s such a thing as ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’ – taste is subjective.  You may read these passages and be drawn to them and that is perfectly all right, but from my perspective, Andrews’ prose was labored and contrived and overwrought and I hated every minute of it.  Here are just a few passages I highlighted that had me rolling my eyes:

“Redness cracking. Fissures forming.  You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places.”

“My father is passed out in a chair and I am dozing on his lap in a mushroom of white lace.”

“The sunsets are crisp and smell of cardigans.”

“He smelled of leather, superglue and love.”

“Sludge horrible delicious between my toes.”

(I sent a couple of these select quotes to a friend who asked if the book was written by a random word generator.  I thought that was so spot-on I told him I was going to steal that line for my review.)

But it wasn’t just Andrews’… questionable word choices that bothered me; it was how she felt the need to bash the reader over the head with what she considered to be the book’s salient themes:

“Bridges are in-between spaces and I was in between, too.”

[regarding how Lucy would use the Shard as a landmark to orient herself in the city] “I feel an affinity with the Shard, even though it is a symbol of the wealth and status I am so far removed from.”

Everything was just so painfully on the nose.  There already isn’t a whole lot of thematic variance amongst this sort of bildungsroman, so the need to shove these incredibly basic concepts down the reader’s throat struck me as beyond unnecessary.

Anyway, moving past the atrocious writing, another thing that grated is the cruelly stereotypical portrayal of the Irish – regarding the narrator’s grandfather’s childhood in Ireland, after establishing that he slept in his aunt’s barn, this paragraph is, quite literally, the only information we receive about that period in his life:

“Auntie Kitty rationed the hot water and made anyone who entered the house throw holy sand over their left shoulder, To Keep Away The Devil.  Her husband was in the IRA and they housed radical members of Sinn Féin in their attic.”

Poverty, religious fanaticism, and the IRA – there’s only one stereotype missing here; oh, wait:

“I have noticed that many of the young men in Donegal have shaking hands. […] I ask my mother what it is that makes them shake. ‘It’ll be the drink,’ she says, sagely.”

This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t the extent of Andrews’ portrayal of Ireland, but there truly is nothing else there, despite Lucy spending long periods of her life in Donegal.

And therein lies the main problem: this is a book about carving out your identity in relation to the places you live, but the book itself has no sense of place.  It jumped around a lot in chronology, which in and of itself wasn’t a problem, but I would quickly lose track of whether Lucy was in Donegal or London or Sunderland, because the depictions of each felt the exact same. I’ve never read another book about place that’s so devoid of atmosphere.

Finally (sorry, I bet you thought I was done) – Lucy’s younger brother is deaf as a child, and then has a cochlear implant to restore his hearing.  I already found this to be a bit of an odd narrative choice given the dearth of deafness representation in literature; I was hoping there would later be a bit of nuance to explain this decision by the author, but instead this subplot is pretty much dropped, barring an incredibly sloppy few pages in which she describes his transition from sign language to verbal speech:

“He wanted to dance to music and to enjoy the delicate nuance of spoken language. He learned the way that putting feelings into words and out into the world could ease the pressure inside, like letting air out of a balloon.”

So… sign language isn’t ‘putting feelings into words and out into the world’?  Ok then.

I started and finished this on January 1 and I’m predicting it’s going to be my least favorite book of the year.  Watch this space in 12 months.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.  All quotes are taken from the ARC, not a finished copy, and are subject to change.

book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

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VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, August 2019

 

When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

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


You can pick up a copy of Valerie here on Book Depository.

book review: The Club by Takis Würger

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THE CLUB by Takis Würger
translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
★☆☆☆☆
Grove, March 12, 2019

 

This has to be one of the most bizarrely terrible things I’ve ever read. So, the reason I requested this book is because its summary reminded me of a film I like, The Riot Club, which is based off a play I like, Posh by Laura Wade. It’s an ugly story, one that examines the kind of privilege and entitlement and classism and toxic masculinity inherent to elite dining clubs. These are all themes that interest me, and I suppose they must also interest Takis Würger, but they couldn’t have been presented in a more shallow or superficial way in this book if he tried. Characters are caricatures, conflict is nonexistent, the writing is dreadful and perfunctory, the point of view shifts are awkward, and the treatment of its subject matter is appalling. So, let’s begin!

The Club follows Hans, a German orphan whose aunt Alex contacts him out of the blue when he turns 18 and promises to secure him a place at Cambridge, where she works as a professor in art history, but in return he has to investigate the Pitt Club, an all-male dining club who have committed some kind of crime. There will be some spoilers in the rest of this review, which I try to avoid but frankly I don’t care because I wouldn’t wish this book on anyone else, but if you don’t want to spoiled, quit this review while you’re ahead.

So, it’s revealed about halfway through that the crime being investigated is rape, and this is handled… about as crudely as humanly possible (also, trigger warnings for the rest of this review as well as for the book). Aside from the fact that Hans’ main source of internal conflict comes from whether he should betray the rapists who have become his friends (my heart goes out to you dude, must be real tough), and culminates in a positively absurd scene where Hans is debating whether or not he should allow a drugged girl to be raped in order to obtain damning evidence of the club before overcoming his moral quandary by scooping her up and running out the door with her (never mind the other girls who have been left behind at that party?!), we also have an utterly senseless relationship between Hans and Charlotte, one of the Pitt Club’s former victims, which is treated with all the nuance and sensitivity that this sentence would suggest: “I couldn’t stop thinking about how wounded she had seemed when she told me about being raped. I wondered what it meant for us.” Yes, seriously. And even if we can look past the fact that the entire premise hinges on a man getting justice for a woman being raped, which is a narrative that just… needs to end, period, the way it’s handled is so clumsy. Like, at one point, Hans grabs Charlotte’s arm and she tells him off because she’d promised herself she’d never let a man touch her without her permission again… good! But then later, she apologizes to him for that?! Würger goes to great pains to remind us that poor orphaned Hans is the real victim in all this.

And aside from all that, it’s just… bad? It’s mostly told from Hans’ perspective, but other POVs are thrown in and not a single one of them furthers the narrative. We hear from other members of the club who talk like… well, like this: “Basically, I was living proof that money, a place at Cambridge, and a big dick don’t make you happy. Fuck.” We hear from Alex, who just… weirdly rehashes conversations that we’d JUST read from Hans’ perspective. We hear from Charlotte, who you’d think had accidentally slammed her finger in a car door for all the impact a traumatic assault had on her. We hear from a Chinese student named Peter who’s obsessed with gaining entry to the club at all costs, and I guess he was also friends with Charlotte at one point but I’m not sure why that detail was included as it’s never mentioned again? None of it amounts to anything – some of these characters have arcs, others do not, but nothing is resolved except for the mystery of who raped Charlotte, which is never really a mystery at all (I’ll give you a hint: he has a big dick and he’s unhappy).

And even Hans is a generic non-entity of a character. This is the kind of insight that Hans would regularly treat us to: “I didn’t listen to music; I jogged without music, boxed without music. There’d been music at my parents’ funeral.” There’d been music at his parents’ funeral so he could never listen to music again????? There’d also been clothes as his parents’ funeral, I’d assume?! (Also, his parents didn’t die at the same time, meaning they would have had multiple funerals, but I’m hoping that was just a typo.) And also: “Charlotte fell asleep on my elbow. After my parents’ death I’d thought I could never love again, because the fear of losing someone was too great. I had grown cold inside. Now here was this woman, lying on my arm.” Cliche after cliche after cliche. This book just… has nothing at all to say. It wants to be edgy and groundbreaking and enlightening but it is just so painfully vapid in every conceivable way.

I mean, it’s quick and readable, I’ll give it that, but my god, at what cost.

Thanks to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

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THE CASSANDRA by Sharma Shields
★☆☆☆☆
Henry Holt, February 12, 2019

 

Writing this review hurts me a little because this was easily one of my most anticipated books of 2019, but I’m sorry, this was pretty terrible. The premise was genius: it’s the story of the Greek mythological figure Cassandra retold and set at Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. But I had four main problems with The Cassandra that I just couldn’t get over: characters, plot, themes, and its success (or failure rather) as an adaptation, so let’s get straight into it.

Every single character in this book was one-dimensional. Within seconds of meeting Mildred (the Cassandra figure), her inexplicably awful mother and sister, her wise and worldly best friend Beth, the charming but cruel Gordon, and the pathetic but well-intentioned Tom Cat, you know what each one of their roles in this story is going to be (which has nothing to do with the myth at the heart of the narrative – more on that in a minute). Every single one of these characters is just pitifully one-note. None of their painfully obvious characterization is developed or explored or subverted, they all just exist comfortably as conduits for the story to advance where it needs to go.

Which brings us to the next problem, how the plot drives the characters and not the other way around. The book starts with Mildred relaying to the reader that she’s had a vision which tells her that she needs to go to Hanford, so that’s exactly what she does. She gets on the bus to head to the facility and she meets Beth, who shakes her hand and promptly declares that the two of them are going to be best friends, and that’s exactly what happens. We’re informed that Tom Cat falls in love with Mildred, because he just does, apparently; we don’t get to see anything develop in a natural or organic way. There’s no rhyme or reason to be found, the story just kind of zips along and you’re meant to accept that the characters’ actions makes sense even when there’s no basis to any of it.

And this would all be somewhat okay if the themes were sufficiently rich and engaging, but they just weren’t. Mildred starts having visions that ‘the product’ being developed at Hanford will wreak havoc and destroy innocent lives, but when she tries to warn the researchers, her concerns are ignored. Mildred then has to grapple with her own role in working for the facility that’s developing this weapon: even as a secretary, does she hold some kind of responsibility? There’s not… a whole lot of thematic depth to engage with there, despite very obvious present-day parallels, but this conflict is the main driving force in the story. And at another point, about 70% through the book, Mildred is brutally raped (as in, seriously brutal, do not enter into this book lightly), and Shields comes close to making some kind of point about how not believing Mildred about her visions has parallels to not believing women who are assaulted, but not much is really done with that opportunity.

And finally, this has to be one of the laziest myth adaptations I have ever read. There are two recognizable elements from the original story: that Cassandra can see the future and no one believes her prophecies, and that she’s raped. One of my favorite things about reading retellings is trying to discern which characters played which role in the original, and of course as a contemporary writer playing with an established story you should be allowed to invent characters and subvert character types and put your own unique stamp on the story, because otherwise what’s the point? But in this case, the original myth was such a rudimentary blueprint that it felt like the author wanted to use the myth only as an excuse to incorporate visions into the story without the reader questioning it too much. Mildred is Cassandra, of course (but why does Mildred get these visions in the first place? there’s no backstory involving an Apollo figure to rationalize this, it’s just another thing we’re meant to accept), and the person who rapes Cassandra is obviously Ajax the Lesser, but do not expect many other elements from the original myth to come into play. I certainly admired Shields’ research into the Hanford facility, but maybe she should have cracked open a copy of the The Oresteia while she was at it.

So, all things considered this was a pretty big disappointment. If you’re looking for a contemporary reimagining of a mythological story I’d suggest Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, or if you’re looking for feminist mythology there’s The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or Circe by Madeline Miller. With so many fantastic mythological retellings published in the last few years, I think you can safely skip this one without missing much.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review – sorry this didn’t work for me! 😦

book review: How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister

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HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister
★☆☆☆☆
Liveright, 2018

 

I think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithy aphorism of the author’s making, Tom McAllister clearly thinks he has something to say in this novel. Unfortunately that ‘something’ rarely amounted to anything more than “The idea of hiding underground for a few years until everything got better was appealing. That’s why groundhogs looked so happy.”

The central concept is a salient one and one that hits close to home – that you’re never truly safe in a society with lax gun restrictions, and suffice to say that as an American living in 2018, gun control is something I feel extremely strongly about. But there is nothing worthwhile in this book that actively contributes to that conversation, this has nothing to offer aside from being topical. This reads as a 200-something page indictment of modern gun laws; no plot, no character development, no commentary that actually forces the reader to consider anything in a new light. No comedy that actually hits its mark, no hard-hitting moments to punctuate the tedium. I’m sure you all know by now that unlikable characters (unlikable female characters in particular) make for some of my all-time favorite protagonists, but it’s like the character of Anna was constructed just to be as abhorrent as possible with no other goal in mind. I also found the constant commentary on womanhood to be incredibly disingenuous coming from a male author, when half of the statements rang false anyway. I’m just not sure why McAllister purports to have the authority to let us know that “Women can wound each other in ways men can never imagine.”

Also, full disclosure here – I listened to the audiobook which is never my favorite format, and the narrator sounding like a telephone operator didn’t help matters. But whatever the driving force behind my dislike was, I just found this to be a waste of time.

book review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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DAYS WITHOUT END by Sebastian Barry
★☆☆☆☆
Viking, 2017

 

You know what’s tragic? When you find a book that seems tailor made for you, and then you end up not clicking with it at all. If we’re going down a checklist, Days Without End is everything I should love: contemporary Irish lit, LGBT protagonist(s), a blend of literary and historical fiction, depressing, lyrical prose; hell, my copy even has a quote from Kazuo Ishiguro (one of my all-time favorite writers) on the cover.

No one is more surprised than I am that I hated it so much.

First, I want to make this clear – Days Without End is not a bad book. I don’t think the Man Booker panel or the myriad of reviewers who gave this 5 stars are crazy at all. My one-star rating is very much on me.

My main problem with this book is that I found the narrative voice almost impossible to follow. The fusion of dialect and lyricism didn’t add up for me – the protagonist, Thomas McNulty, is an uneducated young man, which is reflected in the improper grammar used by Sebastian Barry in his first-person narration… but then you’d also have sentences like “Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day brushstroke by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and then the fires blooming on the pitch plains.” If you’re committing to capturing an authentic voice to such an extent that you’re writing your entire book in dialect, how is this level of poetic imagery consistent with that? I thought the internal logic of Thomas’s narration was filled to the brim with contradictions, and it pulled me out of the story again and again. I also couldn’t reconcile the fact that this character was raised in Ireland, and he was talking like he was straight out of a John Wayne western. My brain just had the hardest time following this prose. I’d only be able to read 5 or 10 pages at a time before I started to zone out (which is why I’d been reading this since November).

This kind of goes hand in hand, but as for the story itself, I was bored out of my mind. There was little to no emotional depth here – this was a very monotonous account of the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Brutality is relayed with dispassionate narration (I realize this is The Point, but it did not work for me); characters had indistinct personalities; I still don’t feel like I know the first thing about Thomas or the great love of his life, John Cole. This is one of those books where I could have read the first and last chapter and skipped everything in between, and I would have had the exact same experience with it. Well, I actually would have had a better experience with it, if I’d only had to read Barry’s lifeless prose for 20 pages rather than 250. But as for the plot, I don’t think I would have missed much.

Ultimately, I didn’t get anything out of Days Without End besides frustration. Emotionally this book left me cold and intellectually I failed to engage with it. But again, I am in the clear minority… if you’re curious about picking this up, go for it. You’ll know by the second page whether the narrative voice works for you. I should have trusted my gut and dropped it then and there.