In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: April 26 to 29, 2018

This is a deceptively angry book. It may look normal and unassuming on the outside, even boring, but on the inside, it’s a slow-building, roiling, burning rage, the kind that sucks you in and makes you burn along with it. And I could not stop reading or even look away. Finished it in 36 hours. All I did this weekend was read this book and let it burn.

Beautifully written, bitterly frustrating, angry and wholly unexpected.

Looks real black and white now–very clear–but back then everything came at you in bright colors. No sharp edges. Lots of glare. A nightmare like that, all you want is to forget. None of it ever seemed real in the first place.

[…]

Would it help to announce the problem early on? To plead for understanding? To argue that solutions only demean the grandeur of human ignorance? To point out that absolute knowledge is absolute closure? To issue a reminder that death itself dissolves into uncertainty, and that out of such uncertainty arise great temples and tales of salvation?

[…]

I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence. Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.

[…]

The afternoon had passed to a ghostly gray. She was struck by the immensity of things, so much water and sky and forest, and after a time it occurred to her that she’d lived a life almost entirely indoors. Her memories were indoor memories, fixed by ceilings and plastered white walls. Her whole life had been locked to geometries: suburban rectangles, city squares. First the house she’d grown up in, then dorms and apartments. The open air had been nothing but a medium of transit, a place for rooms to exist.

The theme “you can’t ever go home again” prevails infuriatingly throughout the writing, cementing the fact that, here in this story, you really can’t go home again.

Normally I hate fiction that leaves the reader without closure or an ending. Why read books that imitate real life when there’s already too much real life in your own life? That has always been my reason for staying away from contemporary fiction. But it’s different with this book and its open ending and lack of closure and lack of subtlety, all because it’s Tim O’Brien (better known for his memoir of his experience in the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried). There’s a sharpness to his writing that has always spoken to me. It’s almost as though I get him and what he’s saying. No one writes about memory and pain like Tim O’Brien, and no one writes about being lost in the wilderness of post-traumatic stress quite like he does.

My heart tells me to stop right here, to offer quiet benediction and call it the end. But the truth won’t allow it. Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of us. Who are we? Where do we go? The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating, but this is a love story. There is no tidiness. Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.

This book found me at the right time and in the right state of mind to appreciate its infuriating complexity. In a different mood, at a different time, and I would have no doubt stopped reading somewhere about page 20. But there was something about this past weekend that made this book call out to me. Every word, every line, made sense in a way that contemporary fiction rarely does for me. Maybe it’s Tim O’Brien. Or maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe I just wanted to get lost in the woods or a lake (preferably one that’s accessible only by helicopter).

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Defending Jacob by William Landay

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: January 14 to 30, 2018

This book leaves me conflicted.

On one hand, the writing is very good for a legal mystery/suspense, and I say that as someone who doesn’t like this genre and rarely reads it if I can avoid it. I much prefer to read about the nonfictional kind. However, much to my surprise, that is precisely why this book shines. It’s surprisingly realistic in its portrayals of a high profile murder trial and its effects on the #1 suspect’s family. Also, it reads like of like true crime, if true crime was told from the perspective of someone very close to the case.

Unlike true crime though, we get to see the aftermath of the murder trial and we get to see how the family attempts to return to “normal” after the trial concludes. This story unfolds like most mysteries, with clueless parents asking oblivious questions about their own kid, but half-way through the book, there’s a tonal shift and it subtly becomes a thriller. The prose takes on a more intense, but smooth, feel as the story propels toward the end. The characters become so lifelike they might as well be real, and the story, much more plausible, and the aftermath, entirely believable. But in the end, we don’t get any closure. So, not unlike true crime.

On the other hand, the aftermath is entirely believable and we don’t get any closure in the end and I want to set this book on fire, grind up the ashes, and launch it into space. This is a normal reaction for me though. Whenever I finish perplexing WASP-y contemporary fiction, especially when it centers on affluent families bulldozing over the law, I want to burn the book. But this book is different, mainly because of its unexpected, very un-WASP-y ending which caught me off guard and threw me off my stride. It was entirely unexpected because I didn’t think the author would take it that far, but he did. More importantly though, it worked. The ending, while lacking any sense of closure, was a fitting end to this mess. I thought the savagery was just the right note with which to end this story. So credit to the author for taking it that far. This was a solid ending to a frustrating story that leaves you with absolutely no closure. So, not unlike true crime.

I tried reading this book the year it came out for a book club, but had to quit early because reading about little rich boys getting away with murder was not how I wanted to spend my day off. But I still wanted to know how the story ended, so I decided to set it aside for a better time. Now isn’t “a better time,” but the overall reading experience was better this time around. The story still enrages me, but somehow not as much as before.

So 4 stars objectively.

But honestly? 1 star for all the rage it inspires.

* * * * some spoilers below * * * *

Continue reading

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: January 9 to 14, 2018

I first read this book in 2011 which wasn’t that long ago and normally I can recall basic story elements fairly well. Not in detail, but general things like plots, endings, and main characters.

Not with this book though. Usually it takes me about a couple of pages into the book to remember the plot and then everything else comes back to me gradually in bits and pieces, but with this book, I had to get to over 40% before I could vaguely recall the main character and the ending… but not much else. This reread was like reading for the first time.

It’s not that this book is forgettable. More like the premise has been done too many times before in contemporary mysteries. You have a troubled main character with a turbulent life who returns to her hometown and stumbles upon a mystery that’s very close to her heart. It’s strange but also familiar to her, and to no one’s surprise, it has connections to her trouble past. So she takes it upon herself to investigate this case–she’s a journalist, by the way–and chases down every twisted lead. And each lead is a major trigger for her that brings up all sorts of darkness from the past. After a series of close-calls and heart-pounding, page-turning chapters, she solves the case, although not well and gets very little closure at the end.

The one thing that sets this book apart from others like it is the voice. It’s told in Gillian Flynn’s particular style, like Gone Girl but better and more nuanced imo. The writing more disorganized and less theatrical. More unpredictable and more organic, less tightly controlled. It delves deep into the frayed psyche of a life-long cutter who has never really had a chance to work through any of her problems. There were many moments in which I wished I could have looked away, but couldn’t because the Flynn had me on the edge of my seat.

Flynn has a way of getting under a character’s skin (and my skin), and she projects her voice poignantly on a variety of issues. I don’t necessarily like her characters or even enjoy the stories she’s telling–although “enjoy” is not the right word here, feels too tacky–but I’m always interested in what she has to say and how she says it.

“It’s impossible to compete with the dead. I wished I could stop trying.”

[…]

“I just think some women aren’t made to be mothers. And some women aren’t made to be daughters.”

[…]

“Safer to be feared than loved.”

[…]

“I ached once, hard, like a period typed at the end of a sentence.”

A word of warning though. Cutting and self-harm are featured heavily in this book, in excruciating detail.

* * * * *

Rereading because I honestly don’t remember having read this book. Like at all.

It’s like

* * * * *

Just as twisted and disturbing as Gone Girl, but a lot better in terms of execution… (pun not intended?).

Touch by Claire North

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: January 2 to 8, 2018

This is my first read of the year, and already it’s starting out with a high. Solid 5 stars through and through.

So brilliant, so beautiful, and absolutely breathtaking. I have no words for what I am feeling right now after having just turned the last page. And now that this book is over, I am utterly lost. Why couldn’t it be longer? Why isn’t there more? And yet it ended on such a perfect note. I haven’t read a plot coming together this succinctly in a while, so I am currently basking in the brilliance of all the pieces falling into place.

An immortal entity called Kepler has the ability to jump from body to body and take over it completely. He becomes that person for a period of time and lives their life–works their job, interacts with their friends and family, drives their car, wears their clothes, spends their money–and then he jumps to another body when he’s done with that life or gets bored. And he’s been doing it for centuries. He’s lived a multitude of lives, as men, as women, old, young, rich, poor, and everything in between.

And then one day, while in a new body and enjoying the novelty of the new body, he is gunned down on the street. Right after he is shot though, he jumps into this killer’s body and takes it over. What follows is an intense, white-knuckle race across Europe to find out who is out to kill him. To do so, he has to work backwards starting with his killer’s identity and working back to his associates and all their tangled connections and then all the way back to the person who hired him. Each leg of the journey reveals something shocking about himself, all the lives he’s lived, all the people he’s known, and the person who’s after him.

Kepler is… hard to define and not a character you could easily root for. He’s also a lot of things, but at the core, he is selfish. He wants to live and continue living, at the expense of the people whose lives he takes over. All his actions and motivations are aimed at this simple truth: he wants to live. This precisely why I find him totally believable as an immortal. He may be selfish, but at least he’s honest about his selfishness and will to live. He makes no excuses because he has this need that drives him to live life to the fullest and experience all that life has to offer, even when it’s someone else’s life and he is just borrowing it for the moment.

Most of the immortals in books I’ve read never achieve this level of selfishness or honesty. They were all too human in their wants and needs. Some even went as far as giving up their immortality for love. (Yes, for love… and that’s totally believable because… reasons?) Kepler though is utterly, single-mindedly a glutton for life, and he lives in such a way that makes you want to life your life to its fullest potential.

Aside from brilliant, this book is also slippery, difficult to grasp and even more difficult hang onto. It took over my every waking moment for the past week and a half and yet it feels like no time has passed at all. It feels like I inhaled a whole new world in one sitting, and now I am slowly returning to mine and feeling as though something is missing, as though there is a hole the exact shape of this book missing from my life and it’s a weighty kind of absence. The remedy for that is to read more Claire North, and I will soon, but not just yet. I’m not ready to move on away from this book yet. This book hangover needs to linger and work itself out before I can move on.

Claire North is a genius, which comes as no surprise to me since I know her from her Kate Griffin days with the brilliant and brilliantly satisfying urban fantasy series Matthew Swift. But this book is something else altogether. Very different, very unexpected, an all-consuming experience I was not ready for. And yet, it has Kate Griffin’s fingerprints in the details. So familiar and welcoming, it’s like coming home again. No one can make cities, lifetimes, and urban magic come alive like she can.

Meticulously written, beautifully executed. Every word, every line has a purpose. No space wasted. No time wasted. I loved everything about this book.

“Nothing is ever quite enough. No matter who you are, there’s always something more to be had, which could be yours if only you were someone else.”

[…]

“Their fear is the fear of the funfair ride where reason tells you the seat belt will keep you safe. True fear is the fear of doubt; it is the mind that will not sleep, the open space at your back where the murderer stands with the axe. It is the gasp of a shadow passed whose cause you cannot see, the laughter of a stranger whose laugh, you know, laughs at you.”

[…]

“It is perhaps the simplicity of his affection, the patience of his understanding and loyalty that makes him too easy to love, for his love is taken for granted by many, who give back nothing in return.”

[…]

“I have no time for boiled sausages, or boiled vegetables of any nature really, and cannot for the life of me comprehend why anyone would still insist on serving dishes whose whole cooking process consisted of exposure to water, to freely invited guests.”

[…]

“How the fuck do I know that my better is anything more than the great big fat lie we tell ourselves to justify the slow fat nothing of our days.”

I’m not surprised Kate Griffin can write a believable immortal. She can write anything and make you believe it. It’s witchcraft.

 

Review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: October 28 to November 13, 2016
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

People say if you face your worst fear, the rest is easy, but those are people who are afraid of rattlesnakes or enclosed spaces, not of themselves and the horrible things they’ve done.

[…]

Life was beautiful, everyone knew that, but it was also bitter and bleak and unfair as hell and where did that leave a person? On the outs with the rest of the world. Someone who sat alone in the cafeteria, reading, escaping from his hometown simply by turning the page.

[…]

I think of life as a book of stories. You move through the stories and the characters change. But once you have a name on your skin you are stuck with one story, even if it’s a bad one.

[…]

Don’t make me sit through reality.

Alice Hoffman has a nice way with words, even when those words are hard to swallow.

I don’t read contemporary fiction much these days or at all. I’m like the people who adamantly refuse to read genre fiction because sci-fi and fantasy? Ugh. But I’m like the exact opposite of those people.

Contemporary fiction? Ugh. About people? You lost me… fine. What’s so special about them? What do you mean none of them shift into animals or mythological creatures? What do you mean none of them are aliens crash-landing on our planet? What do you mean this city is set in our world and our timeline? What do you mean there’s no apocalypse in this story?!?!?!

I read contemporary fiction like I used to read assigned books: reluctantly and kicking and screaming all the way. Well, maybe not so much kicking, but there’s definitely screaming. And expletives. It’s all because contemporary fiction is too close to real life, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s like a shadow of real life, without the weight or consequence or closure. And oftentimes, contemporary authors leave their stories wide open just so you have something to “think about” (e.g. gnaw on while you curse their books). If I wanted reality, I’d turn to nonfiction. It’s the better imitation of reality, anyway.

That’s why I rarely read contemporary fiction. So I just wanted to explain that while this book is, by contemporary fiction’s standard, a perfectly good book with lots of things that would interest readers who like contemporary fiction, such as sharp prose, strong willed but broken characters, haunted pasts, difficult relationships, deep explorations of those relationships, and some magical realism near the end, it’s not for me. Save for the magical realism, the other things are just not what I’m interested in or look for in my reads–to much drama, not enough otherworldly-ness, and I prefer the other way around. Personal preference and all that.

The premise is this: Shelby Richmond and a friend were involved in an accident years ago. Shelby walked away from it, and the friend didn’t. The rest of the book is about how grief and guilt, mainly how Shelby deals with both as she constantly carries them around, as they constantly loom over every aspect of her life. So she learns to live with them, and then later on when she moves away to New York, to deal with them. There she meets other similarly broken people, and they teach she valuable lessons about dealing with the past and moving on. But finally, it’s her friend’s mother who helps Shelby through it the most.

I couldn’t connect to this story, so I can’t sum it up in a way that really represents what it’s really about. Good thing someone at Kirkus Reviews did just that. Just a warning though, there are a lot of spoilers in that summary, but I think the last line sums up this book quite nicely: “A novel full of people—flawed, scarred, scared—discovering how to punish themselves less and connect with others more.”

All in all, this book isn’t as magical or beautiful as the cover led me to believe, but that’s on me. I shouldn’t have assumed it’s anything like Practical Magic.

Other than those few “minor” things, this is a perfectly fine book, and I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy. It seems I won it from a Goodreads giveaway, but I don’t remember entering… Not complaining. I rarely say no to free books. It’s just weird that I don’t remember.

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: Looking for Alaska by John Green

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 19, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: people who like realistic YA fiction

This book is ridiculous.

Ahem.

I mean, not for me.

Let’s start with some quotes

So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

[…]

It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

[…]

Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.

[…]

I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.

[…]

I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

[…]

It’s not life or death, the labyrinth. Suffering. Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?

[…]

“Sometimes I don’t get you,” I said.
She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled toward the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”

Oh the humanity. There’s only so much of these I could take before the book becomes papier-mache (if it weren’t a borrowed or library copy). I’ve never quoted so much from a book I can’t stand, but I think these quotes are worth noting. They’re representative of the book as a whole. If you like them, you’ll like the book.

Objectively speaking, this book is a quick read and it’s not bad, not as bad as I make it sound. The basis of the story is about teenagers at a boarding school. One of them falls for a girl named Alaska, but it’s unrequited and the rest of the book is about dealing with grief. So it’s a fairly average, sort of nuanced narrative about the pains of growing up that has echoes of its forerunners, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye. What sets it apart from Perks and Catcher is all those quotable quotes above and a quirky cast of characters (and a manic pixie dream girl).

I had no expectations going into this book even though all I’d heard were good things about John Green’s writing, and after years of encountering rave reviews of his books and youtube videos, I finally got the chance to see what all the hype was about. His youtube videos–the educational ones–are great. They actually educate and cover a variety of topics and subject matter. I especially like his Crash Course series which covers literature, history, science, politics, and other subjects that might not be taught in some schools like psychology and sociology.

Green’s writing, however, is…just not for me. Not just because it’s YA, but because it’s wordy and tries too hard to be funny, heartfelt, and transcendent, all at the same time. Sort of like Nicholas Sparks but more self and socially aware, and aimed at a younger, hipper audience. So the result is prose that can easily be taken out of context and quoted all over the place–made into t-shirts, banners, posters, movies, etc etc. That’s the sense I got anyway, that Green’s writing tries too hard to be unparalleled and that I can literally see what he’s trying to do by telling this story. It comes across as forced and stiff and sometimes awkward. But maybe that’s a YA thing and it’s way over my head?

So in short, this book is not for me. It didn’t help that I found the plot and characters pretentious and overreaching, and I’m fully aware how that sounds coming from me, someone who counts Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, and Infinite Jest among her favorites. So this isn’t a critique of the book or Green’s writing, but a reflection of my personal taste and why books like Looking for Alaska don’t work for me.

Sometimes pretentiousness works if it has a point and impresses more than repels. But sometimes it falls short and comes off as trying too hard.

Review: Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity by Kevin Fanning

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 11 to 14, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like quirky stories

Interesting concept, nice prose. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

This collection of short–really short–stories isn’t actually about Jennifer Love Hewitt the actress, but in my opinion, what she could have represented had she turned out to be more famous and/or had more pull in the entertainment industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for her career, but this book imagines they did. It imagines her as an important cultural icon who’s deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and for that, I will shelve it as “fantasy.” Kidding.

As you might assume from the title, it’s all about about JLH, but…not really. It’s all about her in the sense that each story features a character called JLH and everything is told from her POV. These stories explore a variety of things, but they’re mostly focused on entertainment, fame, technology, interpersonal relationships, mythology (or rather how we weave mythology), and generally how we shape our lives and how we make sense of them. Which I think is interesting.

The writing would have been just fine without the JLH gimmick. I might have enjoyed it more without the gimmick. But I suppose Kevin Fanning had to do something to set his work apart from other writers who were also experimenting with similar themes and ideas. To me, though, having JLH as the common thread that ties the stories together actually makes the whole collection seem dated, and not in a good way, not unlike the actress herself. All while I was reading I kept thinking about I Know What You Did Last Summer, which led to me trying to recall when it first came out in theaters–it was 18 years ago.

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Has it really been that long? Kids born in 1997 are graduating from high school right this minute. Where has the time gone.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t get this JLH gimmick. I mean, I understand the idea behind it and what Fanning did with it, but I don’t see the point of it. Like, why pick a middling actress with a barely remembered career (who has, arguably, no impact on shaping our modern mythologies at all)? Because Fanning likes the sound of her name? Because Fanning wants to make everyone (or me specifically) remember I Know What You Did Last Summer and in turn remind them (me) how much time has gone by (and/or how much older we’ve all gotten since the movie’s release)?

Not ironically, I don’t remember how I came to own this quirky little chapbook. It was probably a gift from awhile ago. I’d probably meant to read it shortly after receiving it. Maybe back then it would have meant something. Now, though, it’s just another reminder of how much time has passed.

 

[ETA] So why JLH, is what people want to know

A friend from book club, Jules, said something interesting yesterday. He asked, “Why not someone more famous? Why not Tom Cruise?”

Then someone else, Emmy, from a different book club who’d overheard our talk said, “Tom Cruise Times Infinity…??”

And all three of us were silent as we pondered the very idea of an infinite number of Tom Cruises.

Jules and I simultaneously had a mother-of-god moment.

Then Emmy said, “See what I mean? Isn’t one Tom Cruise already too much?”

She’s got a point.