Monday, November 23, 2015
I wanted to read this book the moment it came out. I saw the cover (the pretty floral one, not the tacky one of boobs) on a “New Releases” list and have pined for it since.
I ignored the “Madame Bovary meets 50 Shades!!!!!!” blurb across the front, because marketing, and I looked past the horrid cover of the new editions, because marketing (Remember when they made those classics with the Twilight-esque covers? Oh…), but I shouldn’t have. Sometimes warning signs are actually warning signs.
I wanted to read a story about a pretty woman with a troubled mind. I wanted her to be bored and destructive, empowered and lovely - so full of her own misgivings that she is driven to stasis. I wanted this book to be the erotic, literary masterpiece the world so desperately needs. I wanted this book to pull sex out of the realm of smut and into the inner-circle of art. Sometimes I just want too much.
I instead found a book about a boring, flat woman who has a lot of sex and is promptly punished for it - the literal tolling of church bells ticking away her every indiscretion (SHE LIVES NEXT TO A CHURCH - PLEASE!). Anna, our oh-so-complex main character, is revealed to us in a series of wordy descriptions, her interactions with her family told, not shown. Then there is the most clichéd psychiatrist in literature that I’ve ever seen - she speaks in vague, pretentious half-thoughts. She shows up randomly throughout scenes to remind us how troubled Anna is. She is GOING TO A COUNSELOR, YOU GUYS. She’s real messed up!!1!!!rlkmf
There is no such thing as a graceful, subtle symbol here. Essbaum shoves her literary devices down our throats until we’re sore (Imagine how violent this review would be if I had read the book all the way through!). It’s well written in the sense that it’s grammatically correct, but intellectually, it’s more of the same trite bullshit we’ve been trained to want and like. A metaphor does not a literary novel make, and a story about sex doesn’t make you progressive, or empowered, or daring if it’s just reinforcing the idea that being anything but normal makes you broken. Hell, maybe I am wrong. Maybe this book folds in upon itself and Essbaum says, “Isn’t this all so funny?” and we drink wine and revel in satire and cry until we wash away the horrible, horrible first 50 pages of this book and we can all go out later and listen to cool riot grrrl music and everything will be okay.
Maybe I am not being entirely fair. I’m always looking for a Milan Kundera novel – waiting for the story of a relationship that is fervent in its decay, and lyrically told. Affairs that are beautiful because they’re horrible. You know, that sort of thing. When stacked next to the Unbearable Lightness of Being, there’s really only one similarity.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
I was sold on This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! when I read an early review and learned it contained old ladies, ghosts, the morbidly obese, and alcoholics all stuffed together in a weirdly structured, careening plot. This novel is as quirky and fun as it sounds and proved to be a very quick, light read despite the dreary events befalling the characters.
While I absolutely love a good ghost story, I liked that the return of Harriet’s dead husband was not the showcase of this novel. This is the story of Harriet’s life, not her husband’s haunting. If I had written this novel, I know that I would have (mistakenly) obsessed over the logistics of Bernard’s ghost, would have inserted him into every scene, etc. It takes a skilled, restrained writer to not let the fantastic event of Bernard’s return overshadow the living and pleasantly normal characters.
I never really grasped what Bernard was up to with CTO Charmichael and what the rules of his ghostliness were. All I really garnered was that Bernard was giving up some chance at an afterlife to return to his wife for a few clumsy encounters. I didn’t particularly enjoy the scenes that featured Bernard haggling with the clerks of the afterlife, but I suppose they added some context to his visits and offered some explanation on why he couldn’t just stay or guide Harriet more than he did.
I loved the conversational, slightly-snarky tone of the writing. It’s incredibly accessible and made this book fly by. Though the language is casual, it’s not without beauty. Imagery such as the “dazed bumblebee of shock” circling inside of Harriet’s head add whimsy and depth to otherwise straight-forward prose.
The novel is not all cute metaphor and quirk, however – there are quite a few dark (and plot spoiling) happenings. Things end on a fairly uplifting note, but not before plunging into shocking and upsetting territory. A majority of the revelations about Harriet’s life are reserved for the last fourth of the book, which worked with the plot, but I did feel an emotional lopsidedness to this novel. I didn’t truly feel invested in Harriet as a character until the ending when we learn how and why she is flawed. Though, part of the charm of this novel is that you don’t really know who Harriet Chance is until the very end – and neither did she. I loved the sentiment, in the last paragraph of the book, when Harriet realizes that “our lives are more sinew than bone” and the whole structure of the novel falls together - all of the weird side-stories and flashbacks mean more than the solid, present acts did. It was a refreshing take on a familiar trope.
There are some weird similarities between this novel and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic/whatever you call an area with glaciers, the titles are conversational statements containing the main character’s name, both feature quirky women abdicating from a family, the cloud of maternal angst hangs heavy over each novel, the covers are almost the same light blue, and Bernard and Bernadette are pretty much the same name, right? Was this intentional? What is going on here? It’s easy to keep the two books straight since they’re written so differently and are, now that I think of it, not similar at all, but I couldn’t post this without bringing up the likeness.
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is an endearing, human read. I am excited to look into Evison’s other works, but I have to buy another box of decongestants first.
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance is available September 8th, 2015 from Algonquin Books.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
I was surprised by how much I had forgotten, or, more likely, blocked out. Remember the weird weight every decision carried? Picking a college dictated how often you’d see your friends and family, your course for the rest of your life. Who let me, who put as much thought into picking a t-shirt in the morning (though, to my credit, this was pretty hard because every article of clothing had to accurately represent my entire system of beliefs), decide this!? Now, after revisiting my not-so-distant youth with Jack and his company, I am both impressed with and baffled by the strange, almost calloused resolution with which I faced high school. How did I function knowing that most of my friendships would soon be over or irreparably changed – that despite the inordinate gravity I cast over every interaction, it was all pretty silly and this was just a four year stint in some weird building? Things that remind me of my own resiliency are always nice, but more importantly – Beltane reminds us that those interactions mattered. Things are not any less meaningful just because they happened to us when we wore silly shoes (I wore Converse to prom??) or parted our hair the other way.
I think there is a tendency for people, especially those of us who had experiences that weren’t perfect, to shrug off high school memories. We’re likely to make excuses for the odd things we did, for the things we fought for that seemed, at the time, paramount to our existence. When talking to my friends, I sometimes get the sense that we feel that we are our best selves now, and that any previous self must be ignored or, at best, forgiven. To admit to having been anyone other than who we are right now is a great weakness, somehow. Though, if we didn’t feel that way, we’d probably fall apart. That’s why A Company of Tatters is so effective and bittersweet: It is an unapologetic ode to selves gone by – a raw celebration of youth. Though Jack, Tobie, Sammy, and Ally are young, their feelings are violently pure. These characters, with their immense capacities to love and forgive, impressed and reassured the hell out of me. That was my best self once, and that’s okay.
While the relationships are super-charged and crackling with intensity, they aren’t unrealistic, and they’re definitely not melodramatic. I think this story in any other hands could have been a catastrophe, but Beltane balances it all with ease.
Not only is Beltane an expert of liberating forgotten emotion, he crafts settings that shine. His descriptions made me nostalgic (seeing a trend here?) for a time and place I’ve never been. The dull murmur in the glistening mall food court, the quiet dark of a suburban backyard in the wintertime – all enhanced by a playlist of songs referenced throughout. It was mesmerizing – I finished a great majority of the novel in one day.
I was only drawn out of the story twice: It took me a while to memorize everyone’s names (if I took a break from reading, I needed some time to become reacquainted) and, at times, it seemed that Jack was a little too clueless. Was he really unaware that Ally was in on the King of Hearts dance setup until page 236!? Though, maybe, having grown accustomed to Jack’s clear-sighted retrospection, I was used to him having all the answers.
I am reading over this review and I’m amused; Most of this was about myself, but that’s what Jack Beltane’s novel forces you to do – to reminisce, to accept your strangest self, and to make us want to share our own war stories. A Company of Tatters is an absorbing and heartbreaking read that makes even those of us who refused to wear real shoes to prom feel welcomed.
Visit jackofbells.com to purchase the book and listen to the accompanying soundtrack!
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Perhaps because of this dismissive reading of her most prominent work, I always thought of Shirley Jackson as a literary "one hit wonder." I once saw a copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle at a bookstore and disregarded it as a posthumous, half-baked melodrama.
What the hell was wrong with me!? Why did no one tell me!?
Shirley Jackson is a goddess.
I figured I'd give Let Me Tell You, a collection of essays, short stories, lectures, and other writings, a try. The cover was pretty, there seemed to be a bit of buzz about it, and there was an ARC available. Why not? I am so, so glad. I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in Jackson, and this is what reading is all about for me - finding those few souls who, though filtered through time, culture, and the calcified shells of self-perception and identity, make me feel like me.
So it is no surprise that in addition to enjoying the short stories in this collection, I was fascinated by her personal essays.
I got a sick joy out of "A Garland of Garlands," her tongue-in-cheek commentary about the follies of professional book reviewers. "Book reviewing is just nothing for a healthy young women to be married to," Shirley says of her literary critic husband. I recognized some of my own bad reviewing habits in the section on "The Earmarked Pen," which is a trend for reviewers to cling to a set of cherished words (see: heartrending). Jackson's comments on "The Development of the Theory of the Universality of Art" were also interesting - reviewers and critics do tend to believe themselves to be artists, but why? I, at least, see my reviews as holding their own in the literary world because of the emotion, honesty, and eloquence with which I attempt to imbue them. But of course I feel this way - I wrote them. If I find meaning in art and communicate it to you in a relatable, heartfelt (heartrending?) way, does that make me an artist too? Maybe not always, but I like to try.
I was also very excited to find that Shirley Jackson has an affinity for the strange. Ghosts, demons, synchronicities, and prophetic dreams are not things to be ignored in Shirley's world. She addresses these topics with a graceful, humble humor without shirking their wonder. Jackson's writing is decorated with no-nonsense mysticism (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't, I promise). In "How I Write," Jackson says, "What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about." I couldn't agree more.
I feel kind of silly just now discovering these things about Jackson - I read a few other reviews and it seems like what I'm pointing out is what she's known best for - but I don't mind too much. Her immense talent is exciting no matter who points it out, or how often they do it.
There were times when I was bored with Let Me Tell You. I didn't care too much about the fork she cooked with; I got frustrated when I couldn't remember her children's names. But maybe, after reading the rest of the Jackson canon, as I surely (resisting every urge to make a horrendous pun here) will now, I'll come back and savor every character of those drier passages.
Let Me Tell You, edited by Jackson's children, is an insightful look into the world of an intriguing, brilliant woman. I was quick to learn that you don't need to be a long-time Jackson fan to appreciate the anthology - I can't imagine the joy a dedicated follower would find in this book.
4.5 stars: Like writing an essay about a ghost puking into a glass bowl that sits on the piano, which you dusted and polished this morning. The essay is pretty smart, if you say so yourself, and so is the piano.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
WARNING: This post completely spoils The Giver and Messenger by Lois Lowry. Not that she left much for me to spoil...
I hate The Giver.
I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver for the first time (and the second and third time) as a grade school assignment – I adored it. I eagerly shed off the tales of talking animals, of neatly bound fables, and choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps (almost) for this dark, alluring “big kids” novel. It catapulted me into a decade-long fascination with dystopian fiction. Afterward, I leapt into Lord of the Flies and 1984 – very adult, and very fundamental pieces of literature. The Giver was the catalyst in my transition from children’s to adult fiction – a life-altering moment.
|Look at this smug bastard.|
My class spent an entire week discussing the ending. We had debates. We yelled and we laughed andwe let ourselves be completely absorbed by ideas. It was the first time in my life that I picked apart a piece of literature, defended my thesis, and really thought about the power an author has to bend our perceptions – about how our reactions to literature expose who we are. I was absolutely convinced that Jonas had died, and I loved the book because of it. Death made it a more meaningful, cautionary novel and, for some reason, I’ve always loved things that make me sad. But I was also intrigued by my classmates’ ideas – some of them outrageous or intentionally silly, but exciting none the less; their own personal convictions were bleeding out into their hopes and conclusions, and nothing pleases me more than the chance to analyze someone based on their literary conjectures.
Our class read interviews with Lowry in which she was asked about the ending of The Giver and her answer impressed the hell out of me: “That is up for you to decide.” This woman was respecting the intelligence of her young readers and I was thrilled. I was right, and you were right, and even though we moaned and acted as if we would die if she just did not tell us what it all meant, we were happy. It was a formative experience.
But now I am just mad. A book that shaped my identity as a reader and writer is now one of my most despised objects. Lowry betrayed me, and I can’t go back.
|He's on a real bad trip.|
Lowry told us that we could pick the ending, then wrote one anyway. If she had any inkling that a sequel was in the works, she shouldn’t have given readers free-reign to decide for themselves. She could have just shrugged and said, “You’ll see.” (This is why I think the rest of the series is a huge afterthought and a money grab, but that’s a different story). There’s a big difference between “you can pick” and “you can guess.” I realize that many times, an author may not know there’s more to their own stories until well after the fact. Inspiration doesn’t care about publication dates. But, there’s no reason why Messenger had to be so out of touch with the first novel in the series and its readers. She squandered this giant gem of emotional intensity, mystery, and human nature in favor of a frustrating book about magical powers and Christ allegories and, quite honestly, probably a quick buck. The Giver and its first sequel, (though I didn’t know it was a sequel when I read it) Gathering Blue, are poignant because they feature people doing horrible things, and people overcoming them. Messenger’s moral lessons were the equivalent of giving bad acid to Aesop and seeing where things led.
Maybe I’d be a little less upset if the “ending” she forced upon us was not so badly written.
Reading Messenger was like seeing an ex-lover for the first time in years. There are familiar pieces, pieces that feel, though you hate it, kind of interesting. But most of it just makes you embarrassed. Your cheeks flush and you want to retroactively go back and alter the few kind things you’ve ever said about it because now, having seen what it became, it’s just so horrible. You would rather not ever have been associated with this. Some things just don’t need sequels.
Monday, April 20, 2015
I think I heard about Citrus County from a Buzz Feed-esque list containing “15 Examples of Modern Southern Gothic Literature.” Southern Gothic is one of my favorite things on Earth and I had just gotten back from a trip to Florida, so this seemed like the natural progression of things. I was nervous, however – I’ve got it in my head that something is not truly Southern Gothic unless it was written before 1963. This rule is arbitrary – I made it up – but it seems right, somehow.
I will be revising that rule thanks to John Brandon’s sophomore novel – Citrus County is so good.
The setting was vibrant and dangerous in all of the ways you want the backwoods of Florida to be. In an early college fiction workshop, a teacher told me that I needed to tone it down a bit – I was describing unfortunate scenarios and places so grotesquely that I was verging on the insensitive. This really stuck with me; the last thing I want to do is alienate or belittle readers. Brandon is a master of finding this balance. He can describe the forlorn, impoverished quality of Uncle Neal’s house without being offensive. He can describe the tacky neighborhood mall without seeming spiteful.
Sometimes the adolescent characters are more resolute than they should be. I was never really able to grasp how old Toby and Shelby are. We’re explicitly told what grade they’re in, but I don’t think that mattered. Sometimes they are simplistic and sometimes they are wise beyond their years. Perhaps this is the nature of of middle school though – a nonsensical combination of the complex and childlike. Toby and Shelby flit between adult conjectures and a child’s selfishness, often within the space of a sentence. If we are trying to stay within the Southern Gothic atmosphere, I would say that this characterization of Shelby and Toby as being serious, yet childlike fits well within the realm of the genre. Children and childlike figures are so prevalent in Southern Gothic literature (see: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) – they allow us to explore the simple truths Southern Gothic is fixated on in an unbiased, uncorrupted way. Southern Gothic is all about exploring the nastiest, most horrendous things through the clearest lens. Shelby and Toby allow us to do that, but it is still unsettling to continually question how old our main characters are.
I also noticed that many websites classify this novel as YA. That really surprised me! I guess it could be YA – there are young characters, the writing is accessible, but I thought that calling this YA was like calling The Heart is a Lonely Hunter YA. I just wasn't seeing it.
What most impressed me about Citrus County was Brandon’s ability to rationalize the horrific. I felt like Toby was almost justified in kidnapping Kaley. I never felt that he was committing evil. Horror, to me, is when you find yourself sympathizing with the heinous. I felt like the crime Toby committed was a key aspect to his development into an adult. I felt that it was a good thing that he kidnapped a girl – it showed him how to be himself. It provided Uncle Neal (one of my favorite characters) an outlet, even though that outlet was death. Somehow, this all seemed satisfying – it seemed right.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
I bought this ironically, to give me fodder for my increasingly insecure and lackluster Tweets, but I found I was genuinely interested in Bagans’s thought process and the inside look at episodes of the show. Even if you’re skeptical about Bagans’s area of expertise, the glimpses into television production and his thoughts on fame are insightful and honest. He's a knowledgeable member of the production and editing team of Ghost Adventures and has participated in other films and documentaries. If nothing else, he's a talented and experienced documentary maker.
I am Haunted reminded me that Zak is a mostly normal, very real man. I might, in all of my calloused virtual glory, repeatedly tweet him suggestions for investigation locations (the Cracker Barrel), but I’m still saddened to hear about the creepy lady who insisted on telling him about where he’d die, or the fans who sent him death threats. I also appreciated Zak’s level of introspection. On his show, he comes off as confrontational and shallow, but this book offers us another view... almost. While Zak readily admits his tendency for emotional outbursts, the ease with which he cries, his migraines (which I can definitely sympathize with), parts of this memoir still seem very guarded. It seemed that large portions of this memoir exist solely to give Bagans a chance to explain and defend himself. This might seem to be more of the dude-bro caricature, but I think the things Zak worries about and feels the need to publish reveal that he's actually a pretty insecure, sensitive guy. I felt that story about the airplane bathroom was written in the hope that the flight attendant read it - that the story about the crackhead fight was a veiled apology for his hotheadedness.
|Need I say more?|
It’s not well written. Kelly Crigger ghost wrote this memoir, but I’m pretty sure much of Zak’s original dictation remains unchanged. The writing sounds like Zak Bagans, which I guess will please some, but I don't think Zak is the most eloquent of paranormal investigators. It feels like it is written in classic grade school format (topic sentence, supporting sentences, summary sentence, repeat). This book is also intensely unorganized and random, but I'm not sure I could have made it through an entire book that was purely Bagans's paranormal theories or his stories about poop on airplanes.
Dedicated fans of Bagans, however, will look past the weird inconsistencies and weak writing and will truly love this book. It’s unexpectedly revealing and sensitive. It will make you laugh because it's absurd, but also because there are some truly funny anecdotes.
Three Stars: Puking ironically into a waded-up TapouT t-shirt only to find that it's made of a pleasantly absorbent material.
Pictures belong to Victory Belt Publishing
Sunday, February 22, 2015
--Sorry for the hiatus! I've been working on my own writing.--
In 2015, I decided to read more nonfiction because if I don't actively try, I won't read any. For me, nonfiction has been this giant, musty cave where nothing lives except overstuffed academics and Bill O'Reilly (I'm exaggerating, but I like the imagery). I'm quickly and happily proving myself wrong. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty not only gets a place on my "Nonfiction For People Who Aren't Actively Writing a Thesis" shelf, but might be one of the best things I've read, ever. This is a big deal. Savor this moment.
I first heard about this memoir through Jezebel. Doughty had posted an excerpt from the book on the site under the title That Time My Job Involved Tossing Dead Babies Into a Crematory. As expected, I loved it - there was dark humor, historical information on witches, and, above all, a searing, painful honesty. If you're at all on the fence about reading this, read the excerpt. The tone and grittiness factor are pretty consistent throughout the rest of the book.
So, intrigued, I bought the book. I came for the yucky bits, but stayed for the introspection. Doughty is hilarious and sweet. Even while she is caking makeup on a moldy corpse, you relate to her. She's completely honest in regards to the funeral industry, and, more importantly, herself. There were moments of insight that made me throw the book down and text my friend, right then and there, because I had found someone "who gets it." The whole concept of a "good death," embracing death without longing for it, the drive to educate others on something they'd rather not think about - Doughty gets it, Maybe it's because she's accepted her mortality so gracefully that she is able to write so genuinely about being alive.
Toward the end of the book, Doughty sheds her desire to entertain, which was jolting at first because the quirky, funny tone is lost, but it is a much needed transition. This became less of a memoir, and more of a manifesto and action plan, which I liked because I agreed with it, but I can see how other readers may be perturbed after so many anecdotes and witticisms.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in current funerary practices, interesting funerary practices from other cultures and time periods, and weird/morbid self-discovery.
5 stars: Puking on your own terms, in your own bathroom, after delicately consuming your deceased neighbor, a la the Wari. You feel like you've really done something - and you have.
Monday, January 12, 2015
Amy works at Orsk, a flimsy IKEA knockoff located in Cleveland, Ohio. She hates it there - her fellow employees are pretentious, the customers are sheep, and someone keeps smearing uh... something on the displays. She thinks she's bound to be fired at any moment. One night, her boss calls her in to his office and asks if she'll patrol on the night shift - just to keep an eye out for the mysterious body fluid bandit. Laid out like an IKEA catalog, Horrorstör tells the story of her chilling night in the labyrinthine store.
I was especially amused that the Orsk store was in Cleveland. I work in Cleveland, and I almost live there, and I definitely get the foreboding, spooky vibe. Imagine my horror when I learned, via an unfounded rumor on Facebook, that IKEA was considering a Cleveland store! It was too perfect. Even though I desperately want an IKEA here more than I've ever wanted anything, I still experienced a fleeting panic before I remembered that there probably is no giant haunted prison to build on top of.
On top of the horror and mystery, there is a thin layer of workplace dissatisfaction. It’s honest and brutal. It I love Amy’s skepticism and general disdain for “drinking the Kool-Aid” (eating the Swedish meatball?). Out of all the characters, she felt the most real. I’m not sure if this is because the other characters were kind of flat, or if they were just too far out of my realm of empathy. I would be friends with Amy. I would not be such easy friends with Basil, her super passionate, assimilated boss.
I've read that some have trouble seeing the blueprints and spec drawings of the furniture on e-ink devices. I would suggest reading this one in physical form, not only to avoid possible image distortion, but because it is a delight to hold. It’s a wide, floppy book with a very glossy cover. I felt like I was really doing something when I held it. It is also self-referential; The cover flap mentioned the generous cover flaps. My copy from the library smelled like someone had used it as an ashtray, which added to the creepiness factor. However, in the end, the pictures, fake coupons and advertisements weren't really needed to enjoy the story. They enhanced it, but knowledge that they existed in some form would have been enough for me to appreciate the effort. I felt that the design and heft of the book itself was more satisfying than the pictures.
3 stars: Puking in the restroom at a big-box store. Someone's in the stall next to you, but they're not saying anything. You become silent friends. Or, so you think. It begins as a low humming - are they singing? But now you're sure of it - they're screaming. Loudly. How can anyone be this loud? You finish your business and trudge out as soon as you can, but, unbeknownst to you, there's a little toilet paper stuck to your shoe.