Thursday, March 31, 2016

THE VEGETARIAN






The Vegetarian, Han Kang, Hogarth Press, 2015, 188 pp (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, orig published in Korea, 2007)
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
 
My review:

My problem in reviewing this novel is I can’t figure out what to say. The story of Yeong-hye, who decides to stop eating any food that comes from animals after having a dream, is so brutal and heartbreaking. It left me drained and reeling.

This woman’s story is told by three of her relatives: her husband, who divorces her because she became too much for him to deal with; her brother-in-law, who victimizes her in order to work out his artistic conundrums; and her sister, who tries to save her. Except for some of Yeong-hye’s dialogue, we never get inside of her mind. Those three relatives come with baggage of their own, leaving the reader to piece together the causes and effects of the woman’s life.

I have not read an entire novel set in current day South Korea before and was somewhat surprised to discover that modern life in that country is such a convoluted mix of Asian and Western concepts.

The husband views his wife as “the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world…she made for a completely ordinary wife without any distasteful frivolousness…it was rare for her to demand anything of me.” When she turns out to be quite the opposite, he drops her without remorse. On the other hand, he has quite Western viewpoints on why people turn to a vegetarian diet.

During a scene with Yeong-hye’s family, her father who is himself a Vietnam veteran with anger issues, tries to force her to eat some meat by mashing it against her closed mouth.

The brother-in-law has what I would call a Western sensibility when it comes to his artistic pursuits. He is a creator of videos, technically accomplished in all aspects of film making, who feels stifled and unfulfilled in his work. His wife takes care of all the details of life, holding a job, raising their child, and keeping their home, so that he can spend his time wrangling with his genius. Yet he also has no concept of the inner life of women except to see them as people he can use.

The sister is the brother-in-law’s wife. She works herself to exhaustion and has no emotional life except as a mother. When Yeong-hye spirals into a complete breakdown, her sister gets her into a reputable mental hospital and attends her with exemplary devotion. From her we finally learn some secrets from their childhood.

I am not sure what the author is trying to put across with her novel. The disconnect between centuries of strict social mores and modern life? The brutality of men towards women? The breakdown of an abused personality? As I read, I felt adrift in Yeong-hye’s mind, the very mind we can only see through those other characters. Her attempt to take some semblance of control over her own life is a total failure in the eyes of her family, while she appears to feel she is approaching her destiny.

Through finely wrought prose, endless images of blood and plant life, repeated instances of desires fulfilled and needs unmet, Han Kang unveils a disastrous failure of this entire family.

So. I have managed to say a few things. Writing this review has left me drained. I would recommend the book as an exploration into the mystery of human weakness.

The Vegetarian has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize of 2016.

(The Vegetarian is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
  

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

NEAR TO THE WILD HEART






Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector, New Directions Books, 1990, 192 pp (translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Portiero, first published in 1944.)
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Near to the Wild Heart is Clarice Lispector's first novel, written from March to November 1942 and published around her twenty-third birthday. The novel, written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of the English-language Modernists, centers around the childhood and early adulthood of a character named Joana, who bears strong resemblance to her author: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", Lispector said, quoting Flaubert, when asked about the similarities. The book, particularly its revolutionary language, brought its young, unknown creator to great prominence in Brazilian letters and earned her the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize.

Joana, a young woman very much in the mode of existential contemporaries like Camus and Sartre, ponders the meaning of life, the freedom to be one's self, and the purpose of existence. Near to the Wild Heart does not have a conventional narrative plot. It instead recounts flashes from the life of Joana, between her present, as a young woman, and her early childhood. These focus, like most of Lispector's works, on interior, emotional states.
 
 
My Review:    
I almost did not post my thoughts about this book. I seem to be the only person on the internet who doesn't think this book is amazing. A collection of Clarice Lispector's short short stories was published in 2015 and got lots of attention as well as praise. I got curious. As usual, I started with her first novel.
 
It is not fun or easy to read. The style is one of extreme introspection and stream of consciousness. I think many people go through this kind of thing at the cusp of adulthood. She wrote the book when she was nineteen. I think I went through it but I didn't know or understand what it was and I sure didn't talk about it to anyone, except maybe a little with a friend of my parents who was nothing like my parents.
  
Reading this, I found it true that one person's introspection is not interesting to others. Too personal, certainly not linear. However, though many people on Goodreads disliked Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be, most of them thought this book was beyond great. I liked Heti's book because I could understand what she wrote.
 
I got that Joana was often unhappy and happy at the same time; that she was disassociated from other people, that she was having trouble integrating her self with her body, that she had a horror of being trapped and an obsession with freedom. All of that is real to me.
   
Once in a while she would express these things in ways I could connect with. Mostly she sounded mentally ill. Perhaps we are all mentally ill during puberty.
 
The last chapter or so reminded me of Renascence by Edna St Vincent Millay; my favorite poem ever when I was in 8th grade.  
 
 
(Near to the Wild Heart is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

BROOKLYN






Brooklyn, Colm Toibin, Scribner, 2009, 262 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Colm Tóibín's sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.


My Review:
I loved the movie made from this book. It was one of the few Oscar nominees I saw before the Academy Awards event. The screenplay, the acting, the scenery, the cinematography were all topnotch. The emotional impact was huge.

It is unusual for me to see a movie before reading the book and in this case I have to say I enjoyed the movie more. I've not read anything else by Colm Toibin. I know that he wrote a novel about Henry James. The only thing I have read by Henry James is his 1878 novella Daisy Miller. I was not enamored of his style. I found it stuffy and boring. I am just guessing, but if Toibin liked Henry James enough to write a novel about him, he must have admired him. I found a certain flatness of emotion in Brooklyn which was my problem with Daisy Miller.

So. The poignancy of homesickness that Eilis Lacey suffered when she first came to America is pretty well captured in the book but in such a stoic tone that I did not truly feel it. Same with the realization she has near the end, that one cannot go home again. The love between Eilis and Tony is also portrayed in a subdued fashion.

Whoever brought Nick Hornby on to write the screenplay for the movie was brilliant and wise. He breathed life into a quiet lifeless novel. He also changed (or added on) to the ending and again, it was a smart move.

If you haven't seen the movie, see it. I you have read the book and disagree with me, let me know.  


(Brooklyn is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

DEARLY BELOVED









Dearly Beloved, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Harcourt Brace & World, 1962, 202 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: A June wedding sets the scene for Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s bestselling novel, Dearly Beloved. The ceremony is a great moment during which the “gathered together” survey not just this couple, this occasion, but their own lives, hopes, and fears. As the family and guests follow the familiar marriage service, they are stirred to new insights—on love, on marriage, and on all the stages of development involved.
 
 
My Review:
At #2 on the bestseller list for 1962, Dearly Beloved is a meditation on marriage. It takes place on one day during a marriage ceremony. Each chapter takes the voice of one member of the wedding party or one of the guests, thus covering many and various views of marriage and a look at different marriages that succeeded or failed.
 
I was worried going in that this would be a sappy, religious screed but it wasn't. I found it surprisingly modern (for the times) even though the author clearly supports the institution. She also clearly recognized the pitfalls showing that the act of getting married does not guarantee marital bliss.
 
Once again I have read a book from 1962 that falls into a common theme in that year. It is another harbinger of change coming as regards women, the family, and sex. For some reason there are not chapters from the viewpoint of the bride or groom. Though the book is short, I got bored about halfway through but I did admire the concept.
 
Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh. They suffered the kidnapping and death of their first child in 1932, but went on to have several more children. Anne was Charles's co-pilot and a seemingly indefatigable person.
 
In addition to everything else she was a prolific writer. They both had affairs outside of marriage and Charles was labeled a Fascist for a time during WWII. She had plenty of experience to draw on for Dearly Beloved though the book is tame in comparison.
 
Now I am so curious about this author. Melanie Benjamin (The Swans of Fifth Avenue) published The Aviator's Wife in 2013, a fictional account of Anne's life. I am suspicious of all these "wife novels" as I call them. They just keep coming. But now I am thinking I might read this one. Has anyone read it?  
 
 
(Dearly Beloved is out of print. I found a copy at my library.) 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

THE NIGHTINGALE






The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah, St Martin's Press, 2015, 440 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads:
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France...but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can...completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real--and deadly--consequences.
 
My Review:
Though this novel has been a huge bestseller and nearly everyone in the reading group I read it for was swooning in praise for it, I was underwhelmed. I would call it historical romance and in fact the author has been a romance writer for most of her career.
 
Dislikes: formulaic, somewhat manipulative emotionally, and a bit sketchy on the research.
 
I have read tons of WWII books, including novels that feature what it was like for the women at home. Most of them were better. And the ending? Please.
 
A big part of the story concerns the sister who took part in the resistance. No one has written better about the French resistance than Simone de Beauvoir, both in her 1945 novel The Blood of Others and in the second volume of her memoirs, The Prime of Life. She was there! She lived it personally, romantically with Sartre, and politically.
  
Liked: Because the writing was at approximately YA level, it was a fast read. I would not have wanted to spend any more time than I did (two days) reading this thing.
 
I also give her a nod for portraying the woman side of dealing with the Nazi rule in France.
 
Summary: An OK book for women who don't know much about WWII, particularly in France. All the Light We Cannot See is the better book because the writing is so superior.  
 
 
(The Nightingale is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

MOCKINGJAY







Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010, 390 pp
 
THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ
 
Summary from Goodreads: Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss's family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans--except Katniss.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss's willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels' Mockingjay--no matter what the personal cost.
 
 
My Review:
I turned to the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy for some light reading. Ha! Was I wrong.
 
In a YA series, it is inevitable that the protagonists get older and their lives become darker. Look at the Harry Potter books. Katniss has gone from an innocent impulsive decision to save her little sister by taking her place in the Hunger Games, to falling in love (publicly and then really) with Peeta in Catching Fire, to becoming the face and symbol of a revolution in Mockingjay. A teenaged girl who hunted to kill animals as food for her family has now killed humans.
 
Mockingjay is dark indeed. The reality-show-gone-wrong tone of the first book has evolved into a deep probe into topics like child soldiers, torture, and the "end justifies the means" sketchy logic of revolution. Heavy stuff. 
 
I still maintain as I did in my review of Hunger Games that these are good books for teens. This is the world they are inheriting brought to vivid life and devoid of sugar coating.
 
I also saw Mockingjay Part One, the movie, about a week after finishing the book. Excellent adaptation and sensitive portrayal by Jennifer Lawrence of the end of the innocence for Katniss.  
 
 
(Mockingjay is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

THE REIVERS






The Reivers, William Faulkner, Random House, 1962, 305 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: One of Faulkner's comic masterpieces, The Reivers is a picaresque that tells of three unlikely car thieves from rural Mississippi. Eleven-year-old Lucius Priest is persuaded by Boon Hogganbeck, one of his family's retainers, to steal his grandfather's car and make a trip to Memphis. The Priests' black coachman, Ned McCaslin, stows away, and the three of them are off on a heroic odyssey, for which they are all ill-equipped, that ends at Miss Reba's bordello in Memphis. From there a series of wild misadventures ensues--invoving horse smuggling, trainmen, sheriffs' deputies, and jail.
 
 
My Review:
(Note: I have been making my way through the 1962 list of My Big Fat Reading Project for too long. At the beginning of the year, I committed myself to reading at least one a week from the list. So I hope my readers here are not bored by so many old books. Some of them are still worth reading if you never have read them before.)
 
The Reivers was the #10 bestseller in 1962 and Faulkner's final novel. In fact, he died that year. 
 
I wasn't too excited about reading it. I have read most of his novels over the years. Some I have loved, some I barely understood, some bored me. I felt I was done with Faulkner and went into the book with the feeling of completing an assignment. As it turned out, The Reivers was, for me, one of the best!
 
It is set in Faulkner's imaginary county, Yoknapatawpha. The grandfather of one of the families tells his grandson a story from 40 years ago. Many of the Yoknapatawpha characters come into the story and I realized I almost know that place as though I'd lived there because of all the novels and because of how deeply I had become invested in those people.
 
The time period of the grandfather's story is just a bit post WWI, when he was a lad of eleven. The automobile has made its way into the area as well as other modern developments, all viewed with suspicion. But Lucius Priest's grandfather, one of the bankers of the town, has acquired a car. He mostly keeps it locked up in his garage. Lucius's tale from his younger years turns out to be the ultimate road trip/coming of age tale, the trip being taken in that car.
 
Being Faulkner, it is also an account of the ambiguities of good and evil along with yet another rendition of the intricate balance between whites and blacks in the South before Civil Rights changed things.
 
I guess it helped that I had read all those earlier novels but I found this one the most readable of all.
 
Favorite quote from page 52 of the 1962 first printing (yes, my library still has a first printing edition):
 
"So you see what I mean about virtue? You have heard--or anyway you will--people talk about evil times or an evil generation. There are no such things. No epic of history nor generation of human beings either ever was or will be big enough to hold the un-virtue of any given moment; all they can do is hope to be as little soiled as possible during the passage through it. Because what pity that Virtue does not--possibly cannot--take care of it own as Non-virtue does."
 
I found this to be a sobering and truthful statement about our own times. That is how he leaves us. And so, 54 years later, I bid adieu to the great William Faulkner.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

SILENT SPRING






Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, 262 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in three serialized excerpts in the New Yorker in June of 1962. The book appeared in September of that year and the outcry that followed its publication forced the banning of DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson’s passionate concern for the future of our planet reverberated powerfully throughout the world, and her eloquent book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century.
 
 
My Review:
For much of my adult life, I have pondered the relationship between commerce and art. This book caused me to ponder the intersection of commerce and science.
 
I revere scientists who study life here on earth and increase our understanding of the physical properties of life and the universe. I understand that someone has to turn all that into systems and products that make the knowledge available to the rest of us. I abhor the impulses of greed that end up turning the knowledge into destruction. Silent Spring is another important book that shows us how that happened in the 1940s and 1950s.
 
This was a tough read. Not because of the writing because Rachel Carson was one of the best science writers ever. She made biology and ecology comprehensible to regular people. No, it was emotionally tough, reading about all the destruction done to the natural world through the use of poisonous pesticides and herbicides.
 
If you want to know about and understand how interconnected the natural world is, read this book. Just take it a chapter a day. That is how I made it through.
 
She also has some amazing insights about cancer and how these poisons plus atomic radiation have played their parts in the proliferation of that disease. I have nothing against cancer research but I couldn't help thinking that more than a cure for cancer, we need a cure for our planet.
 
Couldn't some of our bright young people figure out how to make healing the earth profitable? Actually I think many of them are working on it.  
 
 
(Silent Spring is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

BLACK SWAN GREEN






Black Swan Green, David Mitchell, Random House, 2006, 294 pp
 
 
Excerpt of Summary from Goodreads: From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.
 
My Review:
Continuing my completist reading of David Mitchell. This is his fourth novel and bears little resemblance to the first three. Although like Number9Dream, the protagonist is a teenage boy.
 
Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor lives with his mum and dad in a dull little English village, Black Swan Green. His parents are deep in conflict and their relationship unravels throughout the one year covered in the novel. Jason's worries center around his school life where he is bullied. He tries everything to get accepted by the lads and kissed by a girl.
 
It is 1982. Mitchell includes Margaret Thatcher, the war in the Falklands, the music of the time. 1982 was a year when I paid not a whit of attention to the world around me so I am always amazed to read novels set in those times of political conservatism when Thatcher and Reagan wrote the playbook. Honestly, I am quite sure I was better off not knowing.
 
Yesterday I was listening to an interview with Hanya Yanagihara, author of the 2015 sensation A Little Life (a book I own in hardcover but haven't been able to bring myself to read.) She states that placing a novel in a specific time and place distracts the reader from the inner lives of the characters. In the case of this novel, I must disagree.
 
Jason's inner life is almost completely made up of the influences of his time and place. Of course, we know that David Mitchell is a master of interweaving time and place with universal themes. In Black Swan Green, he took the universal theme of a boy entering puberty while his parents destroy their marriage and made it an intimate story of one boy's inner life. It is amusing, heartbreaking, and strangely intense for such a slight book.
 
My only critical thought is that sometimes the author's voice intruded too much and threw me out of Jason's head. Particularly at the end when the kid is having realizations but sounds more like a 30-year-old than a boy who just turned 14. 
 
 
(Black Swan Green is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

BREAKDOWN






Breakdown, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2012, 431 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Carmilla, Queen of the Night, is a shape-shifting raven whose fictional exploits thrill girls all over the world. When tweens in Chicago's Carmilla Club hold an initiation ritual in an abandoned cemetery, they stumble on an actual corpse, a man stabbed through the heart in a vampire-style slaying.

The girls include daughters of some of Chicago's most powerful families: the grandfather of one, Chaim Salanter, is among the world's weathiest men; the mother of another, Sophy Durango, is running for the United States Senate.

For V.I. Warshawski, the questions multiply faster than the answers. Is the killing linked to a hostile media campaign against Sophy Durango? Or to Chaim Salanter's childhood in Nazi-occupied Lithuania? As V.I. struggles to answer these questions, she finds herself fighting enemies who are no less terrifying for being all too human.
 
 
My Review:
Sara Paretsky's 12th novel featuring private investigator V I Warshawski begins in a graveyard. While a group of tween girls hold a ritual centered around the shape-shifting heroine from a fantasy series they love, they come across a dead man stabbed through the heart. Instantly you are in the world of girls, cell phones, and secrets.
 
Enter V I, who must protect the girls, find the murderer, keep her young cousin from getting fired, and stay alive. She becomes embroiled with the rich, the politicians, the shady, and (as you may have suspected due to the title) the mentally ill.
 
Paretsky's liberal views are on full display but so are her emotions and her smarts. Because V I is in her 50s now, she has to husband her strength but even though the internet sometimes takes the place of physical investigations, it is also a danger because the bad guys are using it as well. Text messages can be hacked. Cell phones reveal any user's location. She also has to watch out for a rival investigator who is as crooked as they come.
 
Anyone who has read Paretsky knows what a long list of characters people her tales (I make my own list as I read) but she has also reached a new level in Breakdown: super tight plotting and fewer red herrings make this one easier to follow than some of her earlier books. The result is an increase in suspense with not a single lull in the action. V I's very savvy use of the media, that now rules our world, to expose the criminals is evidence that while the author was in her mid-60s when she wrote the book, she is as up-to-the-minute with the modern world as her youngest characters.
 
That brings me to my last point. The first book in the V I Warshawski series, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982. It involves corruption in the Unions, banks, and insurance companies. Hot topics at the time. All the books are set in Chicago. Reading them in the order they were written, as I have done, delivers a consecutive history of the city, spanning over thirty years. Quite a feat if you ask me.
 
 
(Breakdown is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 

Monday, March 07, 2016

BESIDE MYSELF






Beside Myself, Ann Morgan, Bloomsbury, 2016, 313 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Beside Myself is a literary thriller about identical twins, Ellie and Helen, who swap places aged six. At first it is just a game, but then Ellie refuses to swap back. Forced into her new identity, Helen develops a host of behavioural problems, delinquency and chronic instability. With their lives diverging sharply, one twin headed for stardom and the other locked in a spiral of addiction and mental illness, how will the deception ever be uncovered? Exploring questions of identity, selfhood, and how other people's expectations affect human behaviour, this novel is as gripping as it is psychologically complex.
 
 
My Review:
This is a novel about identical twins. Not a heartwarming twin story, except for maybe one chapter near the end, but by then your heart is so cold and frozen you wonder if it will ever thaw. A bit of hope enters in the last chapter but you have seen hope dashed many times in this gruesome tale. In fact, a reader who comes through with a warm heart is likely more screwed up than these twins ever were.

Ann Morgan is the writer who got me not just thinking about reading literature from many countries. She got me doing it because of her 2015 opus, The World Between Two Covers, an account of her completed quest to read a work of fiction from every country on Earth in one year. There was no way I was going to miss her debut novel. In summarizing her international reading experience, she describes how reading all those books changed her and opened up possibilities previously not glimpsed as to the many ways fiction could be created. The evidence of those changes shows in Beside Myself.

Helen and Ellie are six when they embark on a dangerous game. Helen is the older because she was the twin born first. She is the “good one.” Ellie is slower, dreamy, clumsy, and when anything goes wrong in the family it is Ellie’s fault. Helen makes up the game. They are going to swap; Ellie will be Helen and Helen will be Ellie. It will be fun to trick their mum and then even more fun when they tell her what they did. Trouble is, Ellie is very good at playing Helen and when the time comes to switch back, she doesn’t. She convinces Mother she really is Helen. The real Helen is stuck being Ellie from that day on.

It sounds like a fairytale doesn’t it? And the story carries on like those Grimm’s tales with all the creepiness and horror that have given children nightmares for years. Helen, as Ellie, spirals down throughout the rest of her childhood, living through one disheartening incident after another, until she is a broken mentally ill substance abuser living on welfare. Ellie, as Helen, grows up to be a famous celebrity with a trophy husband and rich beyond her dreams.

Set in Great Britain, the novel is also filled with British life and British terms. If you’ve read Kate Atkinson or Sara Waters or other contemporary authors from across the pond, you are grooved in. The story ratchets back and forth between the present day and the various stages of Helen’s life as she grows up being Ellie, told in third person for the present and first person for the past. Her past is a study in the ways expectations by others form a personality, of how cruel kids can be to each other, and the contribution of those factors in the disintegration of Helen’s identity. Such narrative choices leave the reader experiencing her disassociation and emotional despair.

After a pivotal event, the voice from Helen’s past changes from first to second person. She has moved outside of herself, watching as she begins to self-destruct. It is brilliant writing beyond what one would expect for a first novel. The marketers are calling this a psychological thriller but in reality it is a study in identity and in how the combined influences of family, heredity, and society can send a person over the edge. Despite the dark and gritty atmosphere, its portrayal of mental illness is one of the most sympathetic I’ve read since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I suspect Beside Myself will do better in Great Britain than in the United States. That is a pity because it blows Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train out of the water. Think Patricia Highsmith or Muriel Spark or Jose Saramago. Better yet, don’t think, just read it!


(Beside Myself is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback comes out on July 19, 2016.)
  

Thursday, March 03, 2016

MARCH READING GROUP UPDATE








Once again, it is a light month for reading groups. That is fine by me. I have so many other books I want to read this month. I have already read one of these books but another one will be the challenge of the month. Can you guess which one I mean?


Laura's Group:
 
 
Tina's Group:
 
 
One Book At A Time:
 
 
Bookie Babes:
 
 
What books are your reading groups discussing in March? Which of these would you want to discuss?

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

BOOKS READ IN FEBRUARY









So many days February has for such a short month: Valentines Day, Presidents Day, and even Leap Day this year. Often February is dreary, cold, and rainy but this year we had record highs almost everyday here in the Los Angeles area with birdsong and trees leafing out and flowers blooming. 

Once again I read 11 books. One was a memoir written and published by my friend Alice Zogg, whose mysteries I have reviewed here at Keep The Wisdom. Her memoir was for family and friends only so I will not be reviewing it but I was honored to be given a copy and even got a mention in the book. I will say this: you don't really know a person until you read their memoir!

I also read Anatomy of Gray, a one-act play in which my talented granddaughter will be playing the lead role in her high school theater department's spring production. 

Stats: 11 books read. 8 fiction, 1 non-fiction, 7 by women, 1 drama, 1 memoir, 3 from my 1962 Big Fat Reading Project list, 1 translated.

Favorites: Breakdown, The Vegetarian, Mockingjay

Here are the 8 books not mentioned above:












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What good books did you read in February?