mini reviews #3: short stories, memoirs, and novellas

I don’t always feel like writing out multi-paragraph reviews for every single book that I read, but I do post all my reviews – long and short – over on Goodreads.  I’ve started transferring these mini reviews over onto my blog in groups of 5 – you can check out the first two installments here.  Next up:

32855689

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT by Daniel Kehlmann
originally published in German, translated by Ross Benjamin
★★★★☆
date read: October 25, 2018
Pantheon, 2017

A delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Though the creepy house in the woods setting does most of the legwork – I’m afraid this won’t be winning any awards for creativity any time soon – it was a fantastically entertaining way to spend an hour. The translation is excellent; really poised writing that convincingly unravels with the main character’s mental state.

 

535225THE WHOLE STORY AND OTHER STORIES by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
date read: October 15, 2018
Anchor, 2004

This is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali Smith and I reckon it’s not one of the more essential ones to read but I really enjoyed this.

 

 

34848808THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD by Maude Julien
originally published in French, translated by Adriana Hunter
★★★★☆
date read: September 18, 2018
Little, Brown, 2017

The Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine, but it’s also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I’ve ever read. This is what I was hoping Educated was going to be; the difference for me is that Maude Julien seems to have an appropriate amount of distance and perspective from her horrifying past, whereas Tara Westover’s story still felt too close to allow for much analysis. The Only Girl in the World certainly is description-heavy, and it’s not until you head into the home stretch that you see the ways in which her childhood impacted the person she was to become, but it’s well worth the wait, especially in seeing how her feelings toward her mother shift over time. Only recommended if you can handle reading about very extreme cases of mental and physical abuse; it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.

 

16032127REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa
originally published in Japanese, translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
date read: August 26, 2018
Picador, 2013

Revenge is a gentle and unsettling collection of interconnected short stories focused mainly on death and grief and an inner darkness that plagues its eleven different narrators. Both melancholy and macabre in tone, these stories range from heart-wrenching to disturbing, each narrated in an eerily calm and poised tone. This was absolutely engrossing and I’m keen to check out more of Yoko Ogawa’s work.

 

25733983LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren
★★☆☆☆
date read: August 24, 2018
Knopf, 2016

This is a textbook case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I’m thrilled about this book’s mainstream success (women in STEM fields and healthy, platonic relationships between men and women are two things we need more of in media), but there were only so many loving descriptions of trees I could take after a while. There was just too much science and not enough human interest to keep me engaged, and while I wouldn’t say you need to be knowledgeable about biology to approach this book, a certain amount of interest would be helpful, and I just don’t have that, at all. And the audiobook was a mistake; the author narrates it with a positively bizarre amount of melodrama (like, actually in tears at multiple points, and I’m sorry if that makes me sound callous but I really don’t react well to overly sentimental narration), so I can’t say it was a pleasant listening experience… But anyway, really not a bad book, just not my kind of book.

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: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

23164913

HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
Pantheon, 2014

Occasionally infuriating and impenetrable but undoubtedly a masterpiece. This book floored me… but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m having a particularly hard time arriving at a star rating because Ali Smith is a genius and I want to read everything she’s ever written (this was my first time reading her), but I found this book inspired and frustrating in equal measure.

How to Be Both is comprised of two halves – one of these follows Francescho, a female Renaissance painter in the 1400s who disguises herself as a man to legitimize her art, and the other follows George, a teenage girl living in Cambridge in the present day, recovering from the death of her mother. Half of the editions printed of this book have Francescho’s section first, and the other half start with George’s.

I had Francescho first, in a twist of fate that I believe ultimately worked out in my favor. Starting with Francescho is undoubtedly the more difficult approach to this novel – when ordered this way, Ali Smith is essentially taking your hand and asking you to stumble around in the dark with her, until you reach the end of George’s section and have this stunning, wondrous moment of clarity that makes all of the precursory confusion worth it. Based loosely on the life of the Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, Francescho’s section is written in experimental, playful, tonally anachronistic prose which is fierce and unapologetic, though undeniably frustrating at times. Sometimes there’s a difference between recognizing the author’s intent (i.e., sacrificing historical authenticity for a modern tone was a very deliberate literary decision that ultimately did serve Smith’s larger goals with this novel) and appreciating the effect: though I knew it wasn’t The Point, I kept wishing the setting of 1400s Italy would come to life in a more convincing way. Every time the words “just saying” came out of the mouth of a Renaissance artist I got jolted out of the story, which in a way feels like quite a pedestrian complaint when Smith’s vision was so much loftier than a simple historical story, but I’m not going to pretend that I was so swept away by the novel’s postmodern structure and philosophical musings that I was happy to eschew all conventions of setting, plot, and character development.

Goerge’s half is the much more traditional of the two, and the section I did ultimately prefer, but having read them both it’s hard to conceive of one without the other. Admittedly as I headed into George’s section, I was not convinced that these two disparate narratives were going to dovetail in a satisfying way. They do, of course, because Ali Smith knows exactly what she’s doing, as obvious thematic parallels begin to emerge (the role of names in shaping our identity, art’s versatility and timelessness, the relationship between perception and reality), but the two narratives ultimately do begin to play off one another in a much more literal way than I had been expecting.

Reading through positive reviews of this book, what I find so wonderful is that the Francescho people and the George people are both convinced that starting with their section is the Correct way to experience this book. That’s how you know the premise isn’t a gimmick, because there’s really no consensus about which works better. Though the order of the two stories obviously does have a huge bearing on the experience you have with it, it’s exciting that two different novels are essentially coexisting inside this one book – the two novels not being George and Francescho, but George-Francescho and Francescho-George. Again, I think starting with Francescho is the more difficult way to approach the novel: if you start with George, you’ll have a better idea of the big picture as you embark on the second half, but having that delightful ‘oh, now I get it’ moment as everything ties together at the end was half the fun for me, so I’m glad I experienced this book the way I did.

Even though I didn’t like this book 100% of the time I did ultimately love it, and I cannot wait to see what else Ali Smith has to offer.