book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

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CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
★★★★☆
FSG, January 14, 2020

 

Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria.  His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters.  (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.)  But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:

“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles.  This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt.  Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.

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


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

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.

mini reviews #7: audiobooks with long titles & an ARC

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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A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell
★★★☆☆
date read: July 2019
Audible, 2019
originally published in 1916

In spite of my whole ‘Irish lit thing’ I have never once felt compelled to pick up Joyce. But then Colin Farrell went and narrated this audiobook, so that was that. And though he does a terrific job, this is, unfortunately, probably a book that I should have read in print – I’m just not an auditory person at all and there is a lot going on in this book. So I’m not going to lie and pretend that I got as much out of this as I arguably should have, and I’m sure I’ll want to revisit it one day. But I ended up surprising myself with how much I did enjoy it – Joyce’s language isn’t as impenetrable as I had feared, and more mesmerizing than I had expected, and Stephen Dedalus’s journey was occasionally, unexpectedly, thrilling. There’s a lot to unpack here about religion and family and nationality, and if I ever reread this I will vow to attempt to unpack it all then.

You can pick up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here on Book Depository.

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BUT YOU DID NOT COME BACK by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from the French by Sandra Smith
audiobook narrated by Karen Cass
★★★★☆
date read: August 2019
Faber & Faber, 2016

This is a slim, hard-hitting book that doesn’t dwell on the horrors that Loridan-Ivens experienced in Birkenau so much as examine their aftermath. Returning to a family who was spared from the concentration camps while losing the only other family member who was sent to Auschwitz with her, she writes this memoir as an extended letter to her father, whose death overshadows her own survival. Sparse and poignant, But You Did Not Come Back is certainly worth a read even if you feel oversaturated with WWII lit.

You can pick up a copy of But You Did Not Come Back here on Book Depository.

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THE NEED by Helen Phillips
★★☆☆☆
date read: September 2019
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Right book, wrong reader. I don’t have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don’t like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that’s what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character’s anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that’s a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.

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

You can pick up a copy of The Need 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.

book review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

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FRANKISSSTEIN by Jeanette Winterson
★★★★☆
Grove Press, October 1, 2019

 

Frankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, and the second follows a host of characters in the present-day, chronicling the love story between Ry, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a scientist with a passion for artificial intelligence.  The thematic interplay between these two narratives is genius, and Winterson brilliantly highlights the timelessness of the classic she’s riffing off, as themes of death, gender, and bodily limitations underscore both narratives.

But for me, the storyline in the past was the much more unique and engaging one.  These chapters were just begging to be developed into a full-blown novel fictionalizing Mary Shelley, and frankly, if that’s all Frankissstein was, I’m sure I’d give it 5 stars with no reservations.  Though these chapters were largely figments of Winterson’s imagination, the parallels she draws between Mary Shelley’s personal life (what we know of it, anyway) and the content of Frankenstein were incredibly stimulating.

“I have love, but I cannot find love’s meaning in this world of death.  Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth.  If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.  Shelley says that he wishes he could imprint his soul on a rock, or a cloud, or some non-human form, and when we were young I felt despair that his body would disappear, even though he remained.  But now all I see is the fragility of bodies; these caravans of tissue and bone.

At Peterloo, if every man could have sent his mind and left his body at home, there could have been no massacre.  We cannot hurt what is not there.”

The issues I had with the present-day chapters were twofold: first, I found some of the philosophizing on artificial intelligence to be overwrought, and second, the humor was a series of constant misses for me.  Winterson often employs humor in this novel to drive home the absurdity behind certain characters’ misogyny, but she would make her point and then continue to bash you over the head with jokes about sex-bots; it got very old for me.

In spite of this, the parallels between the two storylines were brilliantly rendered, and the overall impression I’m left with of this book is that I am very impressed, and I think this would have made a truly interesting addition to the Booker shortlist.

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


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

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon

Hannah and I are always lamenting how many unread ARCs we have, so we finally decided to put our money where our mouth is and actually, you know, read some of them.  So we are doing a two-person readathon for the first 2 weeks of September, where we read only ARCs in that time.  I say it’s a two-person readathon, but feel free to join us!  This isn’t going to be a big affair with prompts and hashtags and all that good stuff.  The only prompt is to read your damn ARCs already.  But if this endeavor inspires you, please do join in, we’d love to hear from you.

So, what will I be reading?  No clue.  So I am just going to tell you all of the ARCs I have.  Please don’t judge me too unkindly.

Links are included to Book Depository for each of these titles, in case you’d like to grab a copy or read more about them.

Frontlist

Backlist

The only book I can tell you with 100% certainty that I will be reading for this readathon (assuming it arrives in the mail on time) is Liar.  Two I’ve started reading since starting this post are We, The Survivors, and Isolde and I’ll probably finish them before September so there’s really no point in including them here but I’m doing it anyway.

Otherwise, who knows.  Tell me what to read!  If a particular book gets mentioned a lot in the comments, or if someone makes a particularly compelling case, I’ll definitely be more inclined to prioritize that one.  I do know that I want to tackle a bit of backlist, so I may try to focus my attention there, but I haven’t decided yet.

Which ARCs do you have that you’re behind on reading?  Anything from this list that catches your eye?  Let’s chat!

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: Permission by Saskia Vogel

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PERMISSION by Saskia Vogel
★★☆☆☆
Coach House Books, 2019

 

Comparisons between Permission and The Pisces are both understandable and reductive; understandable because sex-centric literary fiction set in Los Angeles is a pretty obvious comp, and reductive because sex and LA are pretty much where the similarities end. Where The Pisces excels, in my opinion, is in its refusal to sensationalize its explicit subject matter; Permission, on the other hand, never successfully avoids that trap.

Permission focuses on a young woman, Echo, who finds solace in the BDSM community after the sudden death of her father, when she befriends her neighbor Orly who happens to be a dominatrix. But what begins as a promising examination of sex as escapism from grief never really manages to take off. Echo, like her mythological namesake, is pretty much voiceless in this narrative, but in this case I don’t think it was deliberate: this book is just one of those character studies that centers on a character who’s drawn so anemically she may as well not exist at all. This goes for the other characters as well: there’s an interesting passage where Echo reflects on the fact that she’s been projecting onto Orly without fully realizing that she’s a human being in her own right, but then nothing is really done with this revelation, and Orly too remains unknowable.

Rather than using sex and BDSM as a vehicle to explore Echo’s loneliness (I think that was supposed to be the point), sex remains the focus in the shallow kind of way that I think could have been avoided if this story had a bit more depth and detail. I did enjoy Saskia Vogel’s prose and there were undoubtedly moments of poignancy here, but on the whole I was underwhelmed.

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


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