book review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★☆☆☆
Penguin Books, 2017

 

Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.

Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.

That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.

book review: Himself by Jess Kidd

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HIMSELF by Jess Kidd
★★★☆☆
Atria Books, 2017

I had two very conflicting instincts about approaching this book: a contemporary mystery set in small-town Ireland sounds ridiculously relevant to my literary interests, and magical realism is something I try to avoid at all costs. Still, I thought I’d give it a shot and hope my love of Irish lit would prevail. Instead I think my dislike of magical realism won out.

Here’s what I don’t like about this genre. (I realize this is a blanket statement and that there are exceptions – I can even think of some myself. But, just talking generally.) I feel like a lot of magical realism arbitrarily includes magical or supernatural elements to force a certain tone or atmosphere onto the story, but rather than being integrated into the framework of the narrative, these elements feel more like awkward accessories.

What I mean is: in Himself, the main character, Mahoney, sees dead people. There are ghosts on almost every page of this book, and there’s an air of mysticism about the fictional town of Mulderrig. Consequently, I want to call this book ‘creepy’ or ‘eerie’ or even ‘whimsical,’ but, was it really any of those things? It was sort of a hollow story. Mahoney, orphaned from a young age, returns to his hometown at the age of 26 to find out the truth of what happened to his mother. A lot of tedium and forgettable characters ensue, and the story lacked an engaging emotional core to draw you in. I just didn’t care, and the ghosts didn’t do it any favors, because they didn’t really do anything – even the ones that I thought would play a larger role in the narrative ultimately did not – so I guess they’re just there to make the book seem creepier than it actually is.

So, why 3 stars? It’s more like 2.5 rounded up, but, Jess Kidd’s prose is stunning. This book was beautifully, brilliantly written, and when it’s so clearly a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ I feel compelled to be generous in my rating. If you like mysteries and contemporary Irish lit as much as I do but you are kinder to magical realism, there’s a good chance you’ll love this. Maybe you’ll get more out of the ghosts than I did.

book review: Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox

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JO COX: MORE IN COMMON by Brendan Cox
★★★★★
Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

I cried a lot in the middle seat on a plane listening to this audiobook. (I’m not an audiobook person but I get very motion sick and I can’t read on planes, so a few people suggested I try a nonfiction book narrated by the author. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any of the ones I was looking for, but when browsing the nonfiction section Jo Cox’s biography caught my eye, which I had been interested in reading for a while. Luke Thompson does a good job with the narration – empathetic but not overly sentimental in a tale already rightfully wrought with sentiment.)

Anyway, this book wrecked me. I’m not British, and I’ll admit to not knowing anything about Jo Cox until her murder in 2016. But I remember looking her up that day, seeing her relatively young face, reading briefly about her politics, and just feeling very deeply sad.

In her biography written by her husband and fellow politician Brendan, we delve into the life and politics of an incredibly strong, inspiring, and resilient individual. I have so much respect for Brendan Cox to be able to write this biography only nine months after Jo’s murder, in the midst of grieving the loss of his wife and mother of his two young children. Brendan’s love for Jo shines through every page of this book, but he still manages to depict her as a real and flawed person.

From her background working with Oxfam to her humanitarian efforts in developing countries to her passion for providing aid to Syrian civilians, Jo’s work and personal life were both characterized by her fervor and determination to provide equal opportunities to as many people as her efforts would reach. It’s an effort that is thankfully ongoing – all proceeds from this book go to the Jo Cox Foundation.

And even though I’m sadder now knowing what a truly beautiful soul was lost that day, I think it’s incredible just how much positive change Jo was able to instigate in her short life. This is a book that everyone should read – Jo’s story is one that everyone should hear, regardless of interest in or knowledge of British politics.

book review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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ELMET by Fiona Mozley
★★★★★
Algonquin Books, December 2017

It was hard not to be curious about Elmet, this year’s wild card on the Man Booker shortlist that didn’t even have a U.S. release date until after the winner (Lincoln in the Bardo) was announced. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, but maybe that was for the best, because what started as a rather unassuming story really crept up on me, and I’m finding this review particularly difficult to write, because I’m so in awe of the scope and composition of this novel.

Elmet (in terms of theme more than style of prose) is All We Shall Know meets All the Birds, Singing, meets Wuthering Heights – a gothic-inspired novel set in the lawless outskirts of British society. The story’s setting, an unnamed rural town, is located on a site once known as Elmet, a Celtic kingdom now a part of west Yorkshire. Fiona Mozley’s sensory descriptions are so vivid, I felt like I was transported straight into the heart of this rustic setting. The novel is narrated by 14-year-old Daniel, an effeminate boy who lives in a cabin in the woods with his tomboy sister Cathy and his father John, an almost paradoxically sensitive and brutal bare-knuckle fighter referred to only as ‘Daddy.’ Throughout the book their peaceful existence is threatened by a local landowner and his family, and the conflict between the two parties crescendos into an inevitable and harrowing conclusion.

Though Elmet is a quiet and subtle pastoral tale, it’s also an absolute powerhouse meditation on violence, gender, familial ties, and societal views on morality. There’s an anger and a restlessness simmering beneath the surface of this positively humorless novel, but it’s not actually as bleak of a read as you might think. There’s a sort of innocence to Daniel’s narration that doesn’t evoke pity as much as demand reflection on the lifestyle of this novel’s unlikely heroes. Mozley’s prose is lyrical and incisive – there’s nothing to do while you’re reading this book but give it your full attention.

I understand why Elmet doesn’t work for certain readers. It’s light on plot and heavy on backstory and its pace is slow, so if you aren’t sustained by its themes and characters, I can see where the word ‘boring’ may be leveled against it. But if you’re the sort of reader who loves a subtle and atmospheric story, this is well worth checking out. This is a solid 4.5, but the more I think about it, the more I like it, so 5 it is.

Thank you to Netgalley, Algonquin Books, and Fiona Mozley for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee
★★★☆☆
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

This was occasionally entertaining but consistently underwhelming. I’m sure it was mostly a fault in my own expectations, but I’d been in the mood for something unapologetically fun and silly, so I was disappointed by how deceptively seriously The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue ended up taking itself. I’m conflicted about this book.

It tells the story of Monty, rich but rebellious heir to his father’s estate. Monty embarks on a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy (who he happens to be in love with), and his sister Felicity. Again, what I was expecting was an unabashedly ridiculous romp through early-Modern continental Europe, but unfortunately I found the plot anything but thrilling. It bounced from city to city in a rather perfunctory way (I never was able to visualize the atmosphere of the setting in a way I would have liked), and it dealt with an array of rather serious topics: homophobia, racism, abuse. In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing at all, but I thought the execution here was just a bit… basic? The extent of Mackenzi Lee’s exploration of these issues kind of amounted to ‘Percy is not afforded as many opportunities as Monty because of the color of his skin.’ Okay…? Yes? Obviously? That’s all? This ultimately struck me as a book that was on the rather young end of the YA spectrum. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy it if you’re older, of course, but this is the kind of occasionally preachy YA book that I ordinarily like to shy away from.

Though I loved each of these characters individually and was ultimately rooting for their relationship, I also wasn’t a fan of how Mackenzi Lee chose to develop it. Here’s the thing: when your story centers around the possibility of a relationship between two characters, you can’t show your hand too early. You can’t tell us essentially from the very beginning that Monty and Percy are into each other, and then rely on the tired trope of miscommunication to keep them apart for the duration of the story. There’s just… no tension, just a rather prolonged story while you’re awaiting the inevitable conclusion.

But as I said, I did love these characters, Monty in particular. He’s exactly the kind of well-rounded anti-hero I love. Though you see nothing but his flaws at first, his guile and loyalty easily won me over. He’s the sort of character who acts in a loud and brash way to cover up his own fears and insecurities, and I thought Mackenzi Lee did a very good job of developing his character in a believable way throughout the book. He’s occasionally infuriating, but ultimately hard not to love. I was pleasantly surprised by Felicity as well, who for some reason I thought was going to be an awkward accessory to the main narrative – but she ended up having a fantastic role.

I know this review has been mostly negative, but I did really enjoy reading this. It was quick and occasionally fun – the truly lighthearted moments were the ones I thought shone the most – but this basically boils down to the fact that I was not the right reader for this book. And that’s perfectly fine – I’m still glad to have read it.

book review: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

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THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimear McBride
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Press, 2017

 

So, even though I had The Lesser Bohemians on my ‘currently reading’ shelf for over three months, I actually read the bulk of it in the last two days. I think I read the first 75 pages or something and then found myself unable to read this concurrently with War and Peace, so it got put aside for a few months. But even so, this is the longest it’s taken me to read a book all year – and it’s only 310 pages. So, why the delay?

Down down I down to the last flakes in. Dreaming for hours I think in my dream. Over over. Day white tongue teeth. Quickness and slowness. Stilts pander to streets and their up down their. I don’t know what I’ve yet. Wander where no notion wanders in amongst the dust of. Devil may Slip. Then wake up.

Because the whole thing is written like this. I won’t lie – this book is challenging and draining.

But interestingly, the style of prose isn’t what ultimately hurt this for me. Once I got into the rhythm of it, it became easier (reading a few lines out loud every now and then helped), and I sort of vacillated between thinking it was pretentious gibberish, and thinking this Joycean stream of consciousness was actually a very profound and striking means of storytelling. I don’t know, I still haven’t made up my mind.

But my main problem with this book is the story itself, which is basically two highly melodramatic people having a lot of sex. 18-year-old Eilis meets 39-year-old Stephen, and we chronicle their dysfunctional liaison with a heightened pathos verging on absurdity. On the one hand, I sort of admire how Eimear McBride was able to make the stakes of this story feel so high when all that was really at stake was an unhealthy train wreck of a relationship; on the other hand, it got to be somewhat tedious. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wholly captivated by this affair from time to time, against my better judgement.

What frustrates me about this novel is that even though it’s told from Eilis’ point of view, I think Stephen’s story is the one that McBride really wanted to tell. His backstory was unexpected harrowing, more twisted and disturbing than I had possibly imaged. But the more he tells his story, the more Eilis fades. Her whole life and existence becomes about Stephen, and the novel that starts as Eilis’s sexual bildungsroman ultimately casts Eilis in a rather inconsequential role. I was left feeling dissatisfied with her character’s journey, which is frustrating when essentially all your novel has to offer in the first place is characterization.

I didn’t hate it, though, even though I wanted to, for the most part. There was something undeniably stimulating and compelling about this book. I’m tentatively intrigued by McBride’s style and I’m curious about her debut, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. But I would not recommend reading this author lightly – I’d only suggest picking up The Lesser Bohemians if you’re up for a challenge and a bit of weirdness, and more than a fair share of sex scenes.

Thanks to Blogging for Books, Hogarth Press, and Eimear McBride for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

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DUNBAR by Edward St. Aubyn
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Shakespeare, October 2017

Dunbar is the sixth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, but it was actually my first. (No, I haven’t read Hag-Seed.) So it wasn’t a desire to keep up with the Hogarth series that drove me to click ‘request’ on this title – I was drawn to it because for whatever reason I just really, really like King Lear.

The main question on my mind as I was reading was: what exactly is the purpose of a retelling? I don’t think there’s ever going to be a definitive consensus on this subject, as I’m sure some of us prefer our retellings on the more literal side, while others prefer them to be more abstract. But in general, I’d say that for a retelling to be a success, that the book should pay homage to the original while still adding something new to the story – maybe exploring certain themes present in the original in greater depth.

So with that in mind, how did Dunbar fare? I can’t quite make up my mind. Dunbar is a contemporary spin on the tale in which the titular figure is a Canadian media mogul, whose company is currently being usurped by his two vindictive daughters, Abby and Megan. The story begins in medias res, with Henry Dunbar in a care home somewhere outside Manchester, telling the story of how he was betrayed by his two power-hungry daughters, and how he regrets betraying his other, loyal daughter, Florence, by cutting her out of the trust.

While it doesn’t follow King Lear to a T, it really only ever deviates by omission. (The subplot with Edgar and Edmund isn’t really present at all.) But where it zeroes in on the relationship between Lear and his daughters, Dunbar is an extremely literal retelling. I mean, Regan is actually called Megan. On the one hand, it was done very well, and on the other, there wasn’t a whole lot left to the imagination.

Interestingly, one facet of Lear that I thought went unexplored in Dunbar is actually one of its most salient themes: the fraught balance between fate and chaos – how much of our human nature is free will and how much is predetermined by planetary influence? The passages in which Henry Dunbar grapples with his ‘madness’ I thought were some of the weakest, and they really missed the opportunity to delve into this theme. Instead, this is a very stripped down King Lear, which ostensibly focuses on the reconciliation between Dunbar (Lear) and Florence (Cordelia). It was well done in its own right, but I couldn’t help wanting more out of this story.

Dunbar was also my first encounter with Edward St. Aubyn, who admittedly I hadn’t even heard of before now, but I have to say that for the most part I was impressed. His writing is lively and clever; I was awed by his intelligence on more than one occasion. I’ll readily admit that as someone with essentially zero knowledge of the stock market, a lot of the details of this book went right over my head – but St. Aubyn still kept me engaged, with stakes that consistently felt high even when some of the details escaped me.

Bottom line (insofar as I am able to give a bottom line when I’m as conflicted as I clearly am about this book): as a novel in its own right, Dunbar was strangely riveting and stimulating. As a King Lear retelling, it left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy reading this, and was fully prepared to give it 4 stars until its overly hasty conclusion, which unfortunately left me dissatisfied. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Thank you Netgalley, Hogarth, and Edward St. Aubyn for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.