Book Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

In The Wonder, an English nurse named Lib is summoned to a rural village in Ireland for a very unique assignment. In that village lives an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell and her two parents, who all claim that Anna has not eaten any food in four months, yet remains in good health. Anna continues to refuse to eat food and claims that she is surviving solely on “Manna from Heaven.” Lib is assigned, along with a nun, to take alternating shifts to watch over Anna 24 hours a day in an attempt to find out if her claims are true. Lib undertakes the assignment with an extremely skeptical mindset, certain that she will catch the girl or her family concealing food somewhere, even as Anna, her parents, physician, and those in the village insist that she has not been eating and that her continued health is nothing short of a religious miracle. As the days pass, and Lib begins to bond with Anna, Lib begins to doubt herself and wonder if something extraordinary truly is going on.

Set in the 19th century, the atmosphere is dark, dreary, and at times almost supernatural. The deeply Catholic religious beliefs of those in the village, and Irelanders in general through Lib’s eyes are stifling and constricting, full of ridiculous, yet deeply held superstitions. This creates feelings of hopelessness, aloneness, and futility in Lib as her rational, scientific outlook clashes with the views of those around her. She is repeatedly faced with moral dilemmas that pit religion against science and faith against reason as she attempts to figure the truth. The story is a bit slow at times in the middle, but eventually the tension ratchets up to a truly heart-pounding ending. This beautifully written, captivating, and unique story is definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4.5/5

Advertisements

Book Review: Note to Self by Connor Franta

This was a hard one to get through for me. I picked this book up because I saw it on a few book instagram pages, and I liked the cover. At the time, I saw that it was a diary-like collection of essays, poetry and photography, though I did not know who the author, Connor Franta, was. For those who don’t know, he is a famous YouTuber who has millions of followers on various social media outlets. I am writing this review with the disclaimer that I have never watched any of Franta’s YouTube videos, so this book was my first exposure to him and his work. I was looking forward to a thought-provoking mix of visuals, poetry, and reflective essays. However, this book fell flat for me. Perhaps Franta’s observations would be revelatory for a younger reader, maybe someone in their teens or very early twenties, but for me, they seemed like obvious, unoriginal clichés. Yes, we should be kind to other people and compliment them instead of tearing them down. Yes, we should spend time with our friends and family rather than getting too caught up in technology. Yes, we should learn to love ourselves first and that will drastically improve our relationships with others. These are all observations that Franta makes in this book that seemed like very obvious platitudes to me.

Franta’s writing did not flow for me. His poetry was lacking, and at times, very bland. The entire book read like a diary of unconnected, random thoughts. The essays were rambling, self-serving, and at times preachy. The stories did not engage me emotionally, even the ones about his breakup, which seemed to be a recent and traumatic experience in his life. The chapters on his bout with depression were a little more captivating, but he only skimmed the surface on the topic, leaving me wanting more depth. I found it difficult to care about Franta’s stories, because he did not dig deep enough into them to give me a real sense of his struggles. From this book, it is difficult to believe that he has faced any real, true hardship in his life, making his reflections seem whiny and unrelatable.

I apologize for the harsh review if you are a Franta fan. Obviously he has a very large following, and so many must find him compelling. For you, this book may provide more insight into his life that may make it much more captivating than it was for me. And all critiques of the writing aside, it is admirable that Franta is attempting self-reflection here, pondering his journey and attempting to learn how to live a rewarding and fulfilling life. One positive thing I will say is that all of the photography in the book is beautiful. If nothing else, I would pick this book up to take a look at the photographs interspersed throughout. They are lovely. As a photographer, I am convinced that Franta succeeds. But as a writer and a poet, not quite.

1/5

Book Review: The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

The Lost History of the Stars takes place during the Boer war in South Africa in 1900. Dutch settlers are being forced from their land by British soldiers and herded into concentration camps. The narrator is Lettie, a 13-year-old Boer. The men in Lettie’s family leave their farm in order to fight the British, and Lettie, her mother, and two younger siblings are left on the farm on their own. When British soldiers come and burn down the family’s farmhouse, she, her mother, and her siblings are forced into a concentration camp. The majority of the story takes place in that concentration camp. It is a crowded, filthy, horrific place, and Lettie attempts to combat her loneliness and boredom by writing in a journal and walking around the camp, reading. She eventually befriends a young British soldier who is guarding the camp, and their relationship complicates her understanding of the war and of human nature.

Much of the story is brutal. The conditions in the concentration camp are harsh and unforgiving. Lettie and her family battle disease, cold, starvation, death, and incredible filth. The story is interspersed with Lettie’s recollections of life on the farm prior to the war, which slows the story down, and at times makes it drag. I knew nothing about the Boer war before reading this novel, so it was an illuminating look at a time in history that was unfamiliar to me. There was interesting exploration of human nature and war, but mostly this is a story of survival, perseverance, courage, family, love, and willpower.

Rating: 3/5

 

Book Review: The Child by Fiona Barton

The Child is a new mystery novel from Fiona Barton, author of The Widow. In this book, Kate, a newspaper journalist, thinks she has hit upon a potential story when she sees mention in the news that the skeleton of a baby was found at a building site. She begins to investigate and dig deeper into the story, attempting to find out the identity of the child. Through her investigations, she encounters three women: Angela, Emma, and Emma’s mother, Jude. The three women are each tied to the deceased child in different ways, and as the novel progresses, Kate slowly unravels the truth of what happened to the child and how it came to be found at the building site.

This is a fast-paced book, with short chapters told in the alternating perspectives of all four women. The twists and turns keep you constantly guessing as to the motives and trustworthiness of each of the women that Kate encounters, creating a tense, suspenseful feel. Several grisly secrets are discovered during the course of Kate’s investigation, and the histories of the women are slowly revealed. This was a quick, captivating read for me, and I found myself dying to know the ending. If you like crime mysteries with compelling characters and a fast-moving plot, pick this one up.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: The Dinner Party and Other Stories by Joshua Ferris

This collection of 11 short stories is a thought-provoking, funny, and sometimes depressing look into modern-day lives and relationships. The common thread running throughout these stories is regret and dissatisfaction. The main characters are all discontented in some way, with their marriages, their jobs, or just their lives in general. They get caught up in elaborate fantasies and inner reflections, and so tend to make mistakes when they return to their real lives. That, or they attempt to escape their discontent by making rash decisions that lead to chaos.

A standout to me was The Dinner Party, in which a couple preparing to host another couple for dinner joke around because the husband dislikes the couple. But as the evening goes on, and the other couple never shows up, it becomes clear that the relationships are not as they seemed. I also particularly enjoyed The Breeze, in which a wife and her husband struggle to make the most of a beautiful spring day, but the wife dissolves into a hopeless anxiety as she pictures not only the infinite number of possibilities for that day, but for the rest of her life. More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?) was another enjoyable story about a bored, lonely office worker who stays at the office overnight one night and wreaks havoc.

These are stories about imperfect people making mistakes. The characters are anxious, neurotic, lonely, and desperate, and their complexity makes them feel real to the reader. The stories are very well-constructed, though they often move slowly and don’t have much action. Still, Ferris’ writing always left me entertained and wanting more.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a wonderful, moving memoir by one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie. I first read Alexie’s work in high school, beginning with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a short story collection about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. There are some echoes of that earlier work here, when Alexie reminisces on his childhood growing up on that reservation. This book is mostly a tribute to his late mother though, and Alexie pays homage to her with 160 poems, essays, and reflections throughout the book. Some are no more than a sentence or two. Some span several pages. Each is thoughtful, stirring, and unflinchingly honest.

Alexie’s stories of being born with an abnormal brain condition, then growing up incredibly poor with his alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother are an interesting glimpse into his early life and formative years. He consistently struggles with his identity and Native American roots, attempting to understand the violence, social injustice, racism, and abuse that he sees around himself. He is bullied attending school on the reservation, and eventually leaves to attend a white high school. He struggles both with being perceived as too Indian and not Indian enough, a theme that continues into his adult life.

Alexie recounts a complicated relationship with his mother, incredibly strained at times. He recognizes her as being the more dependable of his two parents and yet also describes her as hypocritical, inconsistent, cold, unpredictable, and at times, cruel. She was revered and respected by many members of her tribe but could deal out a heavy hand of justice if necessary. He makes it clear that she was far from perfect. Still, the love that Alexie has for his mother is great, and all too obvious here. Alexie’s grief at her loss is palpable, his respect for her very evident. He references his mother as a salmon repeatedly, explaining that the salmon is a divine and sacred creature for his tribe, “our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.” He comes to terms with his mother as an unassailable part of his identity, and begins to understand and accept her in all of her complexity.

Alexie’s writing is witty, funny, heartbreaking, and unflinchingly candid. You feel each emotion, described in different ways: the rage, the sorrow, the hopelessness, and the reverence. There is a lot of repetition, in themes, words, and even whole conversations, but each repetition is purposeful and meaningful, at times resounding like the beating of a drum. “Great pain is repetitive,” Alexie writes, “Grief is repetitive. And, maybe, this repetition can become a chant inside a healing ceremony.” So, Alexie repeats the words and sentences as a form of grieving, and healing. “…I am always compelled to return, return, return to my place of birth, to my reservation, to my unfinished childhood home, and ultimately to my mother, my ultimate salmon. I return to her, my mother, who, in these pages, dies and dies and dies and is continually reborn.”

Alexie’s story is often heartrending, but he never lapses into self-pity or misery. He tempers his grief with lightness instead, often using humor and wit, and he goes on with his life. In one section of his book, he describes discovering that he had a brain tumor in 2007, his eventual surgery to remove it in 2015, and his subsequent recovery. “I was in great pain,” Alexie writes about that recovery time period, “but I took the time to write down these very words. This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.”

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

I picked up this collection of short stories mostly because the cover intrigued me. I thought that this would be a collection of sci-fi-themed stories, and have to admit that I was disappointed that it wasn’t. Instead, these are some rather grim stories about a series of miserable people. The characters are dark, lonely, and ugly, both in behavior and physical appearance. They are all longing for something in their lives, whether that is love as in “Mr. Wu” and “Malibu,” or something more nameless and unclear, driven by a deep sense of dissatisfaction with life, as in “Bettering Myself” or “A Dark and Winding Road.” What the characters in these stories all have in common is unhappiness and a sense of futility. There are no likeable characters here, no redemption, and no uplifting endings. There are no characters that are even decent people. I have read quite a few favorable reviews of this book and this author, but it just wasn’t for me. Perhaps some would find this study of the darker, nastier side of humanity fascinating, but I found it repetitive and hopeless. The author seemed preoccupied with ugliness and cruelty. Overall, I found no useful message here, no meaningful takeaways.

The only story that I would truly recommend is “A Better Place,” a fairy-tale like story about a brother and sister who say that they are not from Earth but are from “some other place.” The sister longs to get back to that “other place,” their home, and her brother tells her that in order to do so, she must either die or kill “the right person.” When a name pops into the sister’s head, and she is sure that he is “the right person” that she needs to kill, she sets out to find him and kill him. This story was a wonderful departure from the rest of the book. It felt perfectly constructed, ending at just the right place in the story to create a truly unsettling, exciting conclusion.

If your tolerance for the disgusting is low, this is not the book for you. However, if you are fascinated by the dark, the stomach-turning, the ugliness in humanity, this one will captiivate.

Rating: 1.5/5

Book Review: Marlena by Julie Buntin

Marlena is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about Cat, a fifteen-year-old girl who moves to a small Northern Michigan town with her mother and older brother after her parents’ divorce. The town is tiny and isolated, so when Cat meets her seventeen-year old neighbor Marlena, the two quickly form a strong friendship. The book is written in alternating time periods, switching between Cat’s perspective in the present as a woman in her thirties, living in New York, and her 15-year-old self in Michigan. From the first few pages, it is revealed that Marlena died less than a year after the two girls met, and the rest of the book consists of Cat’s recollections of their brief but powerful friendship. Marlena is beautiful and wild, and Cat idolizes her, longing to be like her in every way. Marlena, however, is more damaged than Cat immediately realizes. Marlena has an absentee mother, and a father and boyfriend who both cook meth, often leaving her alone to care for her younger brother. She lives a very troubled life full of secrets, regularly taking illegally procured prescription pills to mask her pain. As the girls grow closer, and Cat becomes wilder, experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sex, Marlena spirals downwards.

This is a very touching story about the long-lasting impact of a friendship formed in (and ultimately ended in) youth. Buntin perfectly captures the kind of magical, magnetic girl that Marlena is, addicting in spite of or maybe even because of the darkness around her edges. Cat struggles to free herself from Marlena’s memory even twenty years later. I couldn’t help but compare this kind of friendship to that in Emma Cline’s The Girls, which also described a teenager enthralled by an older, captivating girl, but feel that it was done better here. Marlena is a fully-formed, beautiful, vulnerable, and completely memorable character, which makes Cat’s reverence and adolation of her understandable and believable.

This book also explores issues like poverty, class, and drugs, class but at its heart, this is a story about friendship. Buntin flawlessly captures the feeling of youth, with all of its excessive emotions, bad choices, and hero-worship. More than anything, in reading this book I felt nostalgia, a longing for the good times of the past: that which is lost forever but still can manage to hang around like a ghost.

Rating: 4/5

Favorite Quote: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This novel is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different family member of the main character, Yeong-hye. The first section, narrated by her husband, describes his confusion and fear as one day, Yeong-hye abrutly decides to become a vegetarian and throws out all of the meat in their house. The only reason she provides for the sudden change is one creepy and mysterious sentence: “I had a dream.” Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat and increasingly odd behavior creates a rift in her marriage, and eventually leads her into a destructive decline. This decline continues into the second and third sections of the novel, narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and sister, respectively.

This is a very eerie story, with plenty of disturbing imagery. The dreams Yeong-hye experiences are haunting, violent, and bloody. The tone of the book is ordinary and matter-of-fact, and yet surreal images and extreme situations abound. I found this book to be very absorbing, especially in the first section. At that point, I thought that this was a straightforward horror novel, but it is not. The second and third sections are just as disturbing as the first, but more controlled and calm. Every time I thought that I had a handle on this book and what it was about, it seemed to slip away and change into something different. It is confusing and strange, but worth reading so that you can come up with your own interpretation of the story. For me, this was  a story about a woman’s slow, painful detachment from the world, and her overwhelming desire to be part of the freedom and tranquility of nature. Her choice is a passive rebellion in pursuit of autonomy from a too-rigid, too-strict society, caused by her deep longing and loneliness. I realize that this is a book that begs to be discussed and reflected on, so my views might change in the future, but for now, those were my takeaways. Curious to hear what others thought of this one!

Rating: 3/5

 

 

 

Book Review: One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This is collection of essays about family, race, gender, and identity, among other topics. Koul writes in a sharp young millennial voice; equal parts amused, disappointed, and angry at the world around her.

A constant theme running throughout the book is Koul’s cultural heritage. As a first-generation Canadian and the daughter of Indian immigrants, Koul struggles to define and understand her identity. She describes the “casual racism” she experienced growing up in a predominantly white city, and at the same time expresses frustration at having such conservative, traditionalist Indian parents. Koul’s relationship with her parents provides a constant source of humor throughout the book, as she battles their stubbornness regarding interracial dating and their clash with Western culture. Koul includes small excerpts from emails with her father at the end of each chapter, and each of them are all illuminating and hilarious.

Standouts to me were “A Good Egg,” an essay about Koul’s alcohol-fueled college years and two important friendships she cultivated during that time period, and “Hunting Season,” an exploration of rape culture that felt harrowing and all too real for women today. “Mute,” a recounting of the massive twitter backlash Koul faced in 2016 after making comments regarding the need for more diverse writers, is an interesting take on internet culture, trolls, and social media. One of my favorite essays was “Aus-piss-ee-ous,” in which Koul beautifully explains the dichotomy between wanting to recognize and preserve cultural traditions and the need to evolve and improve backwards cultural notions.

I did find myself wishing that some of the essays contained deeper reflections at times, and even some of the standout essays for me were lacking in a satisfying ending. Still, while not all of the essays were perfectly constructed, Koul’s voice is unique and was consistently entertaining. I get the feeling that Koul’s writing will only get better from here on out, and that hers is a voice to watch out for.

Rating: 3/5