Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: May 27 to 28, 2016
Recommended by: Stephen King
Recommended to:

This is the kind of book you have to finish in one sitting or else it will haunt you until you do. I read it on Stephen King’s recommendation precisely because he said it scared him, which I found amusing and that was the reason it stayed on my radar. If not for Stephen King’s comment, I mostly definitely wouldn’t have picked it up because there wasn’t anything about Paul Tremblay or the blurb that made it stand out or look more interesting than other horror new releases.

I don’t read horror anymore, not because it’s scary, but because there hasn’t been anything new in the genre since Stephen King. i guess you could say that about any genre and have whole libraries of books to back you up. For me, though, the genre stopped being interesting when I realized every horror book I picked up was basically a Stephen King knock-off. Moreover, I don’t like contemporary fiction or the contemporary-ness of the writing in most horror stories, and I especially don’t like stories about domestic upheaval, decrepit old houses, and the ol’ possession or mental illness theme, all of which this book had. The irony is not lost on me.

The basic story is this: there are two timelines–now and 15 years from now. The book opens in the future with Merry revisiting the old house where she and her family lived during her sister Marjorie’s illness. What had happened to her family, particularly her sister, has since become an urban legend. Now Merry finally wants to tell her side of the story.

Like most possession stories, this one began with a series of weird things happening inside the house that no one in the family could account for, and they got steadily worse as Marjorie’s illness progressed. What further compounded the situation was her father losing his job and turning to religion, Marjorie’s medical bills piling up, the family falling further into debt, all the while Marjorie got worse and the weird things in the house kept happening. The family had to turn to exorcism as a last resort to save Marjorie.

The twist to this exorcist retelling is the introduction of a “documentary”/reality TV show. Because the family was financially strained, they had agreed to let a TV crew film a “documentary” detailing Marjorie’s condition in their home, and they had to live with the show’s cast and crew during the filming. Again, all the while Marjorie descended further into madness, which made her condition worse. 

I thought the fake documentary was a clever way to make a familiar plot seem more modern. It added an interesting, yet much needed cringe-worthy, feel to the story that speaks to this day and age of exploitative reality TV.

This book leaves you with a parting question: was what happened to Marjorie a deteriorating psychological disorder or was it supernatural? There’s no clear answer and there’s enough for you go back and forth and second guess yourself.

It’ll keep you up at night, that’s for sure.

* * * * *

A big thanks to William Morrow for holding the GR giveaway where I won a copy of this book.

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Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Rating: 
Date Read: May 01 to 06, 2016
Recommended by: book club’s choice
Recommended to:

This book’s a challenge to rate. Still don’t know where I stand or how to feel about it because there’s so much about it that’s uncomfortable, as it should be since we are unpacking a distorted history here. And yet it’s surprisingly not a difficult read. Uncomfortable at times, but not difficult.

We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.

[…]

So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

The language is pleasantly smooth for such uncomfortable subject matter, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer, but despite the ease of the writing, the story doesn’t feel real. It feels like what it is–a fictional account, that benefits from perspective and hindsight and distance, about a personal narrative that’s supposed to emulate real events. But it never feels real. Not once during the read did I forget that I was reading a story. But maybe that’s the point? This is literary fiction after all.

Although I read it for a book club, the only person I want to discuss it with, so he could help me unpack it, is the author himself because he’s got some ‘splaining to do. Just kidding… sort of. But seriously.

* * * some spoilers below * * *

There are a couple of scenes in particular that I’d some explaining, but I no longer have the book with me and didn’t take notes (I know, I know–the nerve!). But let’s start with the most obvious. Let’s start with the scene with the squid on the beach. How is it relevant to the story? What does it even mean? I’m trying to see the bigger picture here, but can’t see how this fits into the narrative or even how it improves the story.

Please explain, Professor, for I am lost and mildly annoyed that you threw a scene like that into your book.

All kidding aside. Professor Viet seems like one of those intensely smart people who also happen to be easy to talk to. And I would love to hear about the origin of this story–how it came about; how he crafted it; how much of it was taken from real events; how much of it was taken from his own life; whose story is he telling here and why; to what purpose and what end.

You know, just simple questions…

* * * * *

A couple interviews with the Professor himself that I found after reading this book:

NPR

NYT

PBS (video)

I don’t understand the book any better now than I did when I first finished it, but these interviews provide a glimpse into his thought and writing process and his activism. I now understand where he’s coming from better than I did when I first finished the book.

Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: March 21 to April 12, 2016
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

This book is weird, weirder than most books I’ve read and I’ve read a lot of weird things over the years, but it’s not too weird that it’s composed of abstract ideas and incomprehensible babble. It’s weird enough for me to say Well, that’s new.

It’s weird, yet somehow makes complete sense when you’re reading it, but try explaining it to someone who hasn’t read it and it’s like the words aren’t there anymore. I’ve had close to a year to digest it, and I still don’t know where to begin. At the beginning? The thing is the beginning is right in the middle of the story. If we go further back–to the beginning of time immemorial?–that would take too much explaining, and I’d rather you read the book for yourself, if you so choose.

A word of caution though. This book isn’t for everyone. It’s dark and violent and bloody, and yet it’s also funny and lighthearted at times which can be a startling contrast to the darkness and might be unsettling for some people, but if the tone and atmosphere work for you, it’s an amazing satisfying read. If it doesn’t work for you, you would probably want to set it on fire. I’ve had people tell me that, and I completely understand. It’s brings out gut feelings, and I’d like people to know that before entering the library.

So. The beginning is like this: there is no beginning. We join Carolyn and the other guardians of the library as they gather, from various locations and dimensions, to share what they’ve found and to figure out what happened to Father, a mysterious god-like figure that oversees the mysterious library that isn’t really a library but it’s their home. The plot branches off into a few different arcs as we follow some of the guardians as they try and figure out, at first, where Father had gone, and then, what happened to him. What they know so far is he isn’t on this plane of existence or any of the others. All they know is he’s disappeared without a trace, and they need him back because, once the others figure out he’s gone, they will move on the library. The guardians aren’t strong enough to hold them off.

Further explaining would make it sound more convoluted, and everything that happens from this point on is all spoilers.

The ending was a complete surprise to me, but very satisfying overall. It brings the story arc full circle.

I’m glad to have read this book in the time that I did. It was a nice, pleasant break from real life, and I will always remember it fondly as that weird book that was a lot of fun, but I still can’t recommend it to anyone.

Steve sighed, wishing for a cigarette.
“The Buddha teaches respect for all life.”
“Oh.” She considered this. “Are you a Buddhist?”
“No. I’m an asshole. But I keep trying.”

[…]

Peace of mind is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.

[…]

No real thing can be so perfect as memory, and she will need a perfect thing if she is to survive. She will warm herself on the memory of you when there is nothing else, and be sustained.

[…]

As the days and weeks and seasons wore on he found himself repeating this nothing, not wanting to. Gradually he came to understand that this particular nothing was all that he could really say now. He chanted it to himself in cell blocks and dingy apartments, recited it like a litany, ripped himself to rags against the sharp and ugly poetry of it. It echoed down the grimy hallways and squandered moments of his life, the answer to every question, the lyric of all songs.

[…]

“For all intents and purposes, the power of the Library is infinite. Tonight we’re going to settle who inherits control of reality.”

[…]

Carolyn rose and stood alone in the dark, both in that moment and ever after.

This line still gives me chills all up and down my spine.

* * * * *

Still beautiful. Still can’t recommend it to anyone I know. Not sure I understand why I’m drawn to this book. It’s almost as mystifying as the library itself.

* * * * *

I might’ve been a tad too enthusiastic with the rating as this book is closer to a 4 than a 5, but the 5 stays for now.

Truly a fantastic engrossing read. Best of the year so far. I regret not getting to it sooner. Must own in hardcover.

* * * * *

Weird, violent, mystifying, yet elegant.

I’m sad it’s over.

Will have to revisit soon.