book review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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PURGE by Sofi Oksanen
translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
★★★★☆
Grove Press, 2010

 

Purge was my introduction to Sofi Oksanen and, in fact, my introduction to Finnish lit in general (Oksanen herself is Finnish-Estonian). I think this is a fascinating, flawed, and surprising book; it both delivers what it claims to on the blurb, and also takes the story in a direction that I was not at all expecting. Set in twentieth century Estonia, Purge follows the lives of two women, Aliide and Zara; Aliide is an older woman living alone in a remote Estonian village, and Zara is a young sex trafficking victim who shows up on her doorstep one day. The novel explores the relationship and the secret connection between the two women – this much I was expecting from the summary – but their relationship is almost backdrop to Oksanen’s unflinching examination of Soviet occupation.

If Purge has one major flaw, it has to be its momentum, or lack thereof. The first hundred pages which chronicle Aliide discovering Zara on her doorstep are almost entirely unnecessary (and I found the coda rather excessive as well). It’s only in Part 2 when the story makes a radical time jump backward to Aliide’s childhood do the wheels really start turning. But even then, a rather baffling and almost Victor Hugo-esque inclusion of chapter titles insists on neutering the impact of several key moments by announcing their arrival before you even begin the chapter. I won’t include examples so as to not spoil anything, but while I appreciated the effect at first, it grew wearisome. I do wonder if this is a convention of Finnish publishing or an offbeat choice on Oksanen’s part.

But all that said, once you get into the meat of this book, it has a lot to offer. Aliide is a brilliantly crafted character – shades of Atonement litter her narrative, though Purge is an altogether messier affair – and the relentless description of Soviet occupation in Estonia strongly evokes a time and a place that I previously knew almost nothing of. And it’s less a story about these two women – Aliide and Zara – coming together, than a commentary on the unending injustices faced by women in modern history. It’s a stark, bleak book that won’t have much to offer to anyone who needs levity or a protagonist to root for, but I found it very striking – I doubt it’s a book I will be forgetting in a hurry.


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

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book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.

book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD’S LONELIEST HORSE RACE by Lara Prior-Palmer
★★★★☆
Catapult, 2019

 

Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.

This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.

“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”

And then, shortly after:

“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dunwoody

All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:

“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”

So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above.


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

book review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

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STUBBORN ARCHIVIST by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, July 16, 2019

 

Stubborn Archivist is the sort of book that manages to feel both brilliant and incomplete – that’s the impression that I’m left with upon finishing it. Debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler comes out of the gate strong with this book, which is an offbeat piece of auto-fiction that blends poetry and prose (think Eimear McBride, but more accessible) to tell the story of a young British-Brazilian woman growing up in South London.

This is one of the more ‘fresh’ and stylistically interesting things I’ve read in while; its challenge of structure feels authentic rather than arbitrary and the overall effect serves to put you in the head of the nameless protagonist. The one theme that is executed to perfection in this book is the exploration of what it’s like to grow up between two cultures, which Rodrigues Fowler portrays with heart-rending authenticity on both micro- and macro-cosmic levels.

But I do wonder if Rodrigues Fowler was maybe a bit too ambitious; there were a number of other themes that were introduced without ample exploration (and it’s to her credit that I do have to wonder if this was the point – after all, what woman in her early 20s has sex and sexuality completely figured out; but there were still a few scenes whose inclusion I do have to wonder at). I also was less enamored with the passages that left our protagonist and focused on her parents and her aunt; I think the idea was to give a more complete picture of this family’s history, but again, I don’t think these scenes were developed as well as they could have been in order to justify their inclusion.

Ultimately though I did think this was an incredibly striking debut. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys ‘millennial fiction’ and contemporary literary fiction that features young women trying to find their place in the world.

Thank you to Mariner Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pre-order a copy of Stubborn Archivist here on Book Depository.

book review: Country by Michael Hughes

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COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

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WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe Went to the Woods isn’t as good, so let’s just get that out of the way. Which I’m not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don’t want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it’s an understandable comparison. But it’s also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.

We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That’s basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.

My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack’s backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of ‘gotcha!’ moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we’d been inhabiting for several hundred pages – so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).

My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach’s elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it’s probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it’s easy to imagine that you’re in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods‘ predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from ‘marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it’s actually literary fiction’ syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn’t out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.

But to be honest, the only reason I’m dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much – it’s the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there’s so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book’s main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn’t, as she recognizes the complexity of the book’s central conceit.

And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.

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

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


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.