book review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf | #WITmonth2021

translated from the German by Jan van Heurck
FSG, 1983

I read and adored Christa Wolf’s Medea years ago — a fiercely human and political retelling of the myth — and have been wanting to read Cassandra ever since. Oddly, I’ve been misremembering for years that these books have the same English-language translator; they do not, and I think that factor alone might be responsible for the fact that I had a stronger reaction to Medea than I did to Cassandra. Jan van Heurck’s translation here is serviceable, but John Cullen’s Medea translation really sings in a way this one does not. (Hannah, whose favorite novel is Cassandra, has assured me that the German-language prose in Cassandra is much stronger than in Medea, but knows other English-language readers who share my assessment of the two.)

In this volume published by FSG in the 80s, Wolf’s novel Cassandra is published alongside four essays which were originally presented as a lecture series. The first two are travel diaries that detail Wolf’s journey to ancient sites in Greece, the next is a personal journal entry, and the final one is a letter. Through these essays the reader comes to not only see what a passion project this novel was for Wolf, but also to see the myriad of factors from her contemporary sociopolitical perspective that influenced her perception of the Cassandra character. She writes of the ways in which her concept of Cassandra evolve throughout her research:

The character continually changes as I occupy myself with the material; the deadly seriousness, and everything heroic and tragic, is disappearing; accordingly, compassion and unilateral bias in her favor are disappearing, too. I view her more soberly, even with irony and humor. I see through her.

The novel, which comes first in this bind-up, is essentially a monologue from Cassandra’s perspective, narrating her account of the Trojan War as her death draws nearer. Like Medea, this is a very political retelling, focused not only on Cassandra’s life but also the machinations of the Trojan court, notably subverting the romantic notion that the war was waged for Helen’s honor and beauty, instead exposing that that was a smoke screen for Greek occupation, actually driven by an interest in Troy’s trade routes.

This book in both of its halves — novel and essays — is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the destructive effects of war on the individual. I’m glad I finally made the time to read it, I only wish I were capable of reading it in the original German, in which I suspect it may have affected me a bit more.

book review: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

NO VISIBLE BRUISES by Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury, 2019

I am a notoriously slow audiobook listener, but this was ridiculous even for me; I started this book in March and I’m just finishing it now on the last day of August. But it wasn’t, as is often the case for me, because I never felt like listening to it; I would start playing this book constantly and only be able to listen for a couple of minutes because I felt like my skin was crawling. Which is, of course, exactly what a book like this should be, so, no complaints, only apologies that it took me this long to be able to stomach it.

In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates the state of domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) in the U.S. She anchors her thesis to a Montana woman, Michelle Monson Mosure, whose husband Rocky shot and killed Michelle and her two children in 2001, before killing himself. This tragedy was not out of the blue; Rocky had a long history of violence and Michelle had known that he was capable of killing her. When Rocky was briefly incarcerated for breaking and entering into Michelle’s family home, Michelle worked up the courage to file a restraining order — which she then quickly recanted as soon as Rocky was bailed out. Michelle reached out for help and failed to receive it, and Snyder tells her story not only in order to upend common misconceptions about intimate partner violence (the most notable and infuriating of which being, “why didn’t she just leave?”), but also to examine the ways in which her and her children’s deaths could have been prevented.

The focus of the book then turns to the many government-funded programs that have been launched over the years to address intimate partner violence, to varying degrees of success. Snyder puts a huge emphasis in her research on rehabilitation, speaking to perpetrators directly and attending group rehab sessions. It’s a jarring transition, this shift in focus from victim to perpetrator, but it’s a necessary one. The function of this book isn’t merely to dismiss fallacies about intimate partner violence, it’s to address the issue head on and provide insight into what has actually been successful at reducing the crime. Snyder also addresses shelters and police intervention — two commonly cited paths to safety for victims, and she explains the shortcomings of both solutions. The point that she drives home throughout this book is that intimate partner violence doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s caused and influenced by a myriad of social factors which all need to be addressed in their own way, which ultimately involves providing intervention and assistance to perpetrators as well as victims. 

This book is absolutely harrowing but it’s skillfully researched and necessary. There is one thing I’d like to point out though before recommending it — Snyder doesn’t tackle the issue of intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community specifically, and she often gives she/her pronouns to victims and he/him pronouns to perpetrators when speaking generally. She addresses this in her forward, acknowledging that it’s a generalization based on statistics that she is aware does not encapsulate every instance of intimate partner violence. As it isn’t the aim of this particular project to delve into queer intimate partner violence or to highlight specific instances of women assaulting their male partners, I can’t fault Snyder for not doing that, but it’s worth noting that this is probably the book’s most notable weak area. I do recommend this very highly unless queer intimate partner violence is specifically what you are seeking to learn about.

book review: At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
FSG, 2020

Set in the trenches during World War I, At Night All Blood is Black tells the story of a Senegalese man, Alfa Ndiaye, haunted by the fact that he was unable to mercy-kill his best friend after a serious injury. He then descends into a sort of madness as thoughts of loyalty and cowardice torment him, along with the futility of the racist pantomime he’s forced to take part in — the French would utilize racist stereotypes of African soldiers, arming them with machetes to scare off the Germans — an identity which Alfa both rejects and internalizes. 

This book is violent and graphic and visceral but it’s also sublime. Anna Moschovakis’s translation is stunning and Diop’s writing thrums with a rhythm that can only be described as mesmerizing — reading this book is like being in a trance that you can’t snap out of. The repetition might be an annoyance to some readers, but it was really an asset for me and I felt that it drove home both the monotony of trench warfare and the cyclical nature of Ndiaye’s thoughts as his mental state deteriorates. 

I read this book a couple of months back and to be honest with you I can’t remember why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5; probably more of a gut feeling than anything, as looking back I can’t think of a single thing it did wrong. It’s a deeply, uncomfortably human book about an oft-overlooked piece of WWI history — not an easy read by any means, but really worth spending time with. Genuinely thrilled that this won the International Booker this year.

book review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

HOUSE OF GLASS by Susan Fletcher
Virago (UK), 2018

Callum brought House of Glass to my attention ages ago and now that I’ve finally read it, I have to echo his recommendation and add my own disbelief that this book has flown so under the radar. Fans of Laura Purcell and Sarah Waters, get on this! Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think this book ever got a US publisher; it’s a shame, as there is certainly a huge market for this kind of atmospheric British historical fiction over here — a market that is indeed so oversaturated that it’s only natural for some real gems like this to slip through the cracks.

Sort of a slow burn coming of age story à la Jane Eyre meets a modernized Gothic horror novel like The Silent Companions, House of Glass follows Clara, a young woman with osteogenesis imperfecta living in London with her stepfather in the wake of her mother’s death in 1914. She becomes entranced with gardening and is eventually summoned to a manor in Gloucestershire with the task of curating a private greenhouse for the eccentric, frequently absent owner. This is the first time Clara has really left home or done anything on her own given the limitations that her disorder has caused in her life, so it’s partially a novel about Clara finding her way in the world; and it’s also partially a Gothic mystery as Clara attempts to uncover the secrets of Shadowbrook manor.

Again, this novel is quite the slow burn; the mystery element isn’t even introduced until partway through; you do spend quite a bit of time on Clara’s childhood and background. But I do think that ultimately serves the themes of the story quite nicely so I don’t think that’s a negative at all; I just want to firmly clarify that this is a mystery novel much more than it is any kind of thriller.

Susan Fletcher’s writing is strong, her characters are brilliantly crafted, and she interacts with tropes and archetypes from the classics — Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Northanger Abbey — in such a deliberate way, I was really won over by how cleverly constructed this book was. It’s certainly a fun and gripping read on the one hand, but its literary merit shouldn’t be underestimated. Just a very solidly good book all around.

book review: Daughter of Sparta by Claire M. Andrews

DAUGHTER OF SPARTA by Claire M. Andrews
Little, Brown and Co., 2021

I had the best time reading this book. I have obviously read quite a few Greek mythology retellings in my day, but still, I was a little worried that this wasn’t going to work for me just because YA is usually not my thing and I tend to prefer my retellings on the more literary side. But it turns out this was a totally different beast from commercial adult retellings like Circe — and it turns out I enjoyed what Claire M. Andrews was doing much better.

Daughter of Sparta is a zippy, action-packed reimagining of the story of Daphne and Apollo. Throw what you know about the original out the window because it bears very little relevance to Andrews’s narrative — though kernels of other related myths are very self-consciously strewn throughout the novel — instead, Andrews confidently takes the reins and pulls the story in a completely different direction. Her Daphne isn’t a helpless maiden at the mercy of Apollo’s whims; she’s the agent of her own story, and also the only one who can save Greece from impending ruin.

This feels very much like a road trip narrative — not literally, of course, as it’s set in Ancient Greece — but it’s that kind of story, nevertheless: two people (or one person and one god, in this case) traveling and facing hurdles together, their own dynamic shifting as the pages turn. What I loved about this was that it felt nothing like all the other million adaptations I’ve read, while still taking place in the original setting (nothing against modern adaptations, which I also quite like; I was just losing faith that true innovation was even possible without moving the setting). This book is just feels very off the beaten path, which is only a compliment in such a saturated subgenre.

All said, Daughter of Sparta is a tremendously fun, self-assured, pacy debut — definitely skewed toward younger readers (as most young adult novels tend to be), which I just want to stress as my blog and Goodreads audience does skew older, and I don’t want to mislead — but if that sounds good to you, this is a fantastically fun romp. I’m highly anticipating the sequel. 

NB. Claire M. Andrews is a friend of mine. Thank you Claire for the advanced copy!

book reviews: Home Before Dark and Survive the Night by Riley Sager

Dutton, 2020

I read this book over a year ago and annoyingly never got around to reviewing it — I’m only returning to it now as I’m about to review Riley Sager’s newest offering, Survive the Night, and I’m a completionist. So, here we are. Let’s see if I can come up with a few sentences. 

I’ve read all of Sager’s books now and this isn’t one of my favorites from him; I’d put it second to last, with only The Last Time I Lied below it.

Meaning: I still liked it quite a lot.

Set in a decaying Victorian estate in Vermont (can’t go wrong there), Home Before Dark is a sufficiently eerie and unsettling haunted house horror story which indulges a lot of genre’s tropes, but which doesn’t ultimately subvert them in a very interesting way. I think I had more problems with this novel’s resolution than any of his others, but still, Sager is the absolute master of gripping, pacy thrillers, and this one is no exception; definitely recommended if it catches your eye.

Dutton, 2021

In the style of a somewhat modernized film noir, Survive the Night tells the story of Charlie, a New Jersey college student looking for a ride home to Ohio on a cold winter’s night. At the college’s ride board (this is set in the 1990s, pre-the sort of technology that we’d use today for this kind of arrangement), she meets Josh Baxter, also heading in that direction, so she gratefully accepts the ride. The only snag: Charlie’s roommate and best friend was recently murdered by a serial killer. The longer Charlie and Josh spend in the car and the more they get chatting, the more Charlie starts realizing that certain details in Josh’s story aren’t adding up, and she starts to wonder if she’s trapped in the car of her roommate’s murderer.

I read this in a single sitting — I think it’s Sager’s most successful page-turner to date, which seems almost counterintuitive; you’d think that a girl being trapped in a car wouldn’t exactly make for the most gripping of reads, but this might be his most tense, terrifying work yet. The set-up may sound simple, but the way this story unfolds could not be more unpredictable if it tried. 

This book DOES however include the cringiest line I’ve ever read in the history of my entire existence, so I cannot in good conscience recommend it without warning you that this is a series of sentences you are going to have to read with your very own eyeballs — apologies for subjecting you to this:

She’s no longer the scared, self-loathing girl she was when she left campus. She’s something else.

A fucking femme fatale.

File this under: more reasons I try to avoid thrillers by men.

Anyway, after my eyes were done rolling into the back of my skull, I pushed onward and yeah, what can I say, I had a lot of fun reading this. Certain elements of the resolution were brilliant, others were a bit silly, but all I can really ask of a thriller is to keep me guessing and keep me on my toes, and Sager always delivers on that front. I’ve become less confident through the years about his ability to write women — see above quote (I thought his female protagonist in his debut, Final Girls, was written brilliantly, which lured me into a false sense of security) — so the more of his books I read, the more the shine does slightly wear off, but I doubt I’ll be able to quit him any time soon; his books are too damn addicting.

book review: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez | #WITmonth2021

translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Hogarth Press, 2021

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mariana Enríquez’s collection Things We Lost in the Fire, an intriguing collection which I was disappointed to find favored the grotesque over the psychological, something that never fully works for me with horror, so this is more or less what I expected it to be. I did actually like The Dangers of Smoking in Bed much better (in spite of the fact that I’m giving these two collections the same star rating, lol), but it took a while to get going and fair amount of the stories fell into that same trap for me, where I felt like Enríquez was prioritizing shock value over something more organically unsettling. 

Highlights for me were Meat, a sinister story about two teenage girls idolizing a recently-deceased pop star; Where Are You, Dear Heart?, about a woman attempting to satiate her sexual desire for the human heart; and Back When We Talked to the Dead, the collection’s final story which ends it on a deliciously spooky note.

The least successful for me were Angelita Unearthed, the first story which actually caused me to DNF this book two months ago as it suggested to me that this collection would be everything I didn’t like about Things We Lost in the Fire — though I evidently decided to come back to it and give the rest of the book a shot; Kids Who Come Back, a promising concept literalizing the horrors of Argentina’s disappeared children which meanders and ultimately goes nowhere; and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the titular story which I couldn’t tell you a single thing about as it fell so flat for me.

So even though this didn’t completely work to my tastes, there’s something about Enríquez that I keep finding myself drawn back to. I love her creativity, I love the way she brings different areas of Argentina to life so distinctly, and when her stories strike that eerie, unsettling chord, they work beautifully for me. I’ll probably keep reading her books as they get translated into English, though I’m unsure whether I’ll end up loving any of them or whether they’ll remain in this murky promising-but-unsatisfying territory for me.

book review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Atria Books, 2021

The Other Black Girl is an interesting one — I don’t think this wholly succeeds either as a piece of literary fiction or genre fiction, but I still had a lot of fun reading it. Set at a fictional competitive publishing house in New York, Wagner, whose toxic work environment is captured with aplomb, it follows Nella, an editorial assistant and the only Black employee who is thrilled when a new Black girl is hired in a role similar to her own. But shortly after, Nella starts receiving cryptic messages begging her to leave Wagner, and she doesn’t know who she can trust.

Where this fails as a thriller, it succeeds as literary fiction: the pace is practically glacial, but not for nothing; Zakiya Dalila Harris uses that time to wholly develop her characters and depict the toxic insularity of workplace microaggressions. There’s a lot of sharp, biting commentary in here about what it means to be Black in a white office, and what it takes to get ahead in the publishing industry; it’s an incisive read in that regard and I would happily have read an entire novel devoted solely to this element. But then the day-to-day office drudgery starts to fade into the background when the mystery element comes to the forefront.

Where this fails as literary fiction, it succeeds as a thriller: the writing itself is engaging but otherwise nothing special, there’s a weird, quasi-speculative twist that comes out of nowhere, there are random POV chapters interspersed from other women embroiled in the bigger picture thing that’s going on that don’t further the story in any way, but which I assume are there to add tension and intrigue. But the tension and intrigue are never fully there because the pacing is so uneven.

You could certainly laud this book, as many have, for being a sort of ‘genre-defying’ creation, but for me, this was just an overly ambitious project, especially for a debut. Its refusal to fit staunchly into a ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ box isn’t the issue; it’s that we end up with a book that’s half scathing social commentary of racism in corporate America, half a Get Out-style thriller, and it didn’t fully execute either of those aims as well as it could have. That said, even though this never came together in the way I was hoping for, I certainly did enjoy reading it — it’s unexpected, it’s original, it’s sharp, it’s funny — and I think Zakiya Dalila Harris is an author to watch out for.

book review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, 2021

I have a rule that I don’t read thrillers by men; I break the rule every now and then (usually for Riley Sager, whose works I discovered when I still thought he was a woman), and I thought The Girl Who Died sounded so up my alley that I figured I’d also take a chance on new-to-me author Ragnar Jónasson. A few chapters in, the main (female) character, on her first night in a brand new town, is feeling restless and unsettled and can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her. She decides to clear her head by… going for a walk. At night. In the pitch black. By herself. This is why I don’t read thrillers by men.

Anyway, this was fine. I thought the premise was brilliant: in the 1980s, Una, a young teacher from Reykjavik, takes a post teaching two students in a small Icelandic town called Skálar which is so remote only ten people live there. (Skálar was a real town, but Jónasson explains in a forward that he took artistic liberties as it hasn’t been occupied since the 1950s.) Una receives a less than warm welcome and can’t shake the feeling that even though this teaching position was advertised, none of the locals want her there.

I had a lot of problems with this book but I’ll stick to my two main criticisms. The way Una’s ‘alcoholism’ is treated is absolutely laughable; this woman will drink a single bottle of wine in a week and the whole town will be whispering about how she must be an alcoholic, the ridiculous nature of which isn’t remotely addressed; it’s like the reader is also meant to question Una’s credibility, seeing as Una herself starts to after a while (which leads to a moment which is just ridiculously outlandish if you can’t buy that Una actually believes her sanity is slipping away — which, sorry, I couldn’t!). For one thing, is there anything more tired than alcoholic narrators in thrillers, and for another, if you’re going to use that trope, at least… do it convincingly? 

There are also chapters interspersed throughout Una’s story, each about two pages long and fully italicized, from the perspective of an unknown character. Again, this isn’t a convention that I’m ever particularly wild about, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it executed in a way where there was LESS payoff than there was in this book. As in, these passages could have been cut out and not a single thing would change about this book’s resolution.

What Jónasson does well is create Skálar’s atmosphere, so if you like eerie, slightly spooky books set in remote Icelandic villages, it’s worth a read, but mystery fans are bound to feel a bit underwhelmed by this one.

book review: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron, 2020

I didn’t expect to love this book nearly as much as I did. When I started reading, I was immediately turned off by the writing, which I thought was overwrought and stylized to a frankly annoying degree — but I pushed through and I actually found that the writing mellowed out after the first chapter; the prose does have a distinct lyrical flair throughout, but there was almost an air of desperation to the first chapter that the rest of the book was mercifully lacking. (It reminded me of this phenomenon that you sometimes see where it is very transparent that the author workshopped the hell out of chapter 1 to submit to agents, and then settled into a more organic style after that. I can’t say for sure that that’s what happened here, but that was the impression I got.)

Migrations is set in a version of the near-future where almost all animal life has died out, and it tells the story of Franny, a woman determined to follow a species of bird called the Arctic tern on their final migration from Greenland to Antarctica. Because she doesn’t have any funding for this expedition, the only way to make it is to join a fishing vessel and convince the captain to reroute the boat. Obviously she succeeds, or there wouldn’t be a book, but the novel is less about the journey itself and more about Franny’s past, and the trauma that led her to undertake such a dangerous expedition. 

Large swathes of this book are downright implausible, let’s just get that out of the way. If you have a particular interest in environmentalism specifically through a scientific lens, I cannot in good faith recommend this book. It takes liberties, it gets facts wrong, its worldbuilding is under-developed. Personally, nature writing is one of my very least favorite things and the less time spent on it the better, so this catered to my personal tastes quite nicely, but there’s every chance you’ll find this element silly and distracting. 

Regardless, I ended up loving this. Migrations has been compared a lot to Station Eleven and I found that actually rang true for me — there’s something in the character work that felt really similar and familiar. McConaghy’s characters, like Mandel’s, are brilliantly drawn — even the most minor characters feel like they have an entire story hidden in them. 

It’s honestly challenging to describe this book’s strengths when its weaknesses are so evident and tangible; the strengths are a lot more slippery and understated. I think where this worked for me is in its depiction of a very flawed person searching for atonement in all the wrong places. It’s a deeply human, deeply sad work, and it ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely recommended more from a character-driven angle than a dystopian one.

Thank you to Flatiron for the free copy.