“Netsuke”

Netsuke

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Rikki Ducornet’s 2011 novel, published by the fantastic Coffee House Press. I read a first edition paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A married psychiatrist beds everyone – waitresses, tax consultants, clients, men, women.

This, my friends, is what I wanted American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to be.

Netsuke is separated into two parts – the first from the psychiatrist’s point of view (in all his arrogant assholery), the second giving perspective to his wife Akiko and two of his clients (who believe they are his sole affair). Ducornet moves between first person and third person with subliminal ease. The writing itself is beautiful, the language graphic and unflinching. There is a thinly veiled madness here, even when our narrator speaks of the simplicity of dinner or his wife’s decorations. Continue reading

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“Adèle”

Adele 01.jpg

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Leila Slimani’s debut novel, first published in France in 2014, translated by Sam Taylor and released in English in 2019. I read a Penguin Books paperback.

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3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Adèle craves sexual encounters – the more impersonal, the better – but knows her secret will tear her from her husband and son.

Though The Perfect Nanny was Slimani’s first novel published in English, Adèle was Slimani’s debut. Also, like The Perfect Nanny, the title has been changed in translation. In this case, it makes a little more sense. The original title, Dans le jardin de l’ogre translates to In the Garden of the Ogre, a line that is echoed on page 2 (She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden). I can see how publishers would think this sounds like a horror or fantasy novel and calling the text Adèle reflects the obsession the story has for its main character. Even when the narrative includes her husband, Richard’s, point of view, his world is consumed by thoughts of Adèle.

From the start, I’m on Adèle’s side and wholly invested in her while never understanding her compulsions. Strangely, we follow Adèle’s perspective until, on page 141 (out of 216), we begin switching back and forth between her and Richard – who I definitely never like. If we are ever supposed to sympathize with him it doesn’t work, likely because his perspective shows up so late in the narrative.

I love how Slimani writes women who feel conflicted in roles of wife and mother and caretaker, who do not take to it naturally, who balk against expectation, who may not know what they want but know what they don’t want. Continue reading

“Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return”

Samuel Johnson

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Martin Riker’s debut novel, released in 2018. I read a first edition Coffee House Press edition from the library. Between this and Comemadre, I’m ready to read anything Coffee House Press puts out.

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4.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

After his murder, Samuel Johnson’s consciousness begins the strange process of moving into the nearest human body when the last one passes.

I had a great time with Samuel Johnson but it hit a personal sweet spot that isn’t for everyone (think Theophilus North mixed with Cloud Atlas) – an episodic novel with a narrator who goes on tangents and wanders around the point and doesn’t address your questions for quite some time, if ever. It’s meandering; you have to enjoy Samuel’s company to enjoy the book, and I found him and his situation interesting.

Riker smartly doesn’t try to overexplain the predicament his narrator is in: Samuel cannot communicate with his host directly; he sees through their eyes and hears with their ears but cannot taste or smell. Eventually, he learns of ways to get into the driver’s seat, so to speak, but it’s ill-defined. If that description is annoying to you or if you’re entering this book hoping that the rules will be fully explained and make sense, walk away. The logic holes in this story can be large but approached as a fable, it’s emotionally rewarding.

Despite the literary, older-styled tone of the narrator (Samuel died in the 1960s, after all), Riker’s vocabulary and references are simple and clear. Even when the story is odd, unbelievable, or ludicrous, I never doubt the reality of the narrator. Samuel Johnson is quickly real and I enjoy listening to him ramble with his dry humor. Continue reading

“Give Me Your Hand”

Give Me Your Hand

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Megan Abbott’s 2018 novel. I read a first edition Little, Brown and Company hardcover from the library.

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2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Teenage friends Kit Owens and Diane Fleming are torn apart after Diane admits a terrible secret. Years later, they meet again while competing for spots on a prestigious grant.

I’m confused and disturbed that nowhere in the book’s description or author’s Acknowledgments is there any indication that Diane’s high school acts are based in reality. Not “inspired by”, not “influenced by”, but literally, word-for-word, event-by-event taken from the Marie Robard case. Diane and Kit are even studying the same damned Shakespeare play in school.

From reviews and recommendations, I was hoping for another Social Creature; instead I got The Da Vinci Code (it’s popular for a reason, but not my favorite style). Ridiculous and absurd plots can be entertaining, but you must accept the world you’re in and go along for the ride, like watching Face/Off or Armageddon. Otherwise, you’re just going to be miserable the whole time. While I found the teenage years of the girls interesting, I was not on the ride for what happens when they meet as adults. Continue reading

“There There”

There There

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, published in 2018. I read an Alfred A. Knopf first edition from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Modern Native Americans living in Oakland converge on a powwow.

There There never tries to hide its climax. Early on, we know guns and bullets will be smuggled into the powwow and from there, we know there will be shooting and death, so I’m not going to be coy in this review about hiding it, either.

Orange’s writing is solid with refreshingly modern references and deeply effecting moments. Each chapter is named after its central character, some receiving many chapters, some with one. For the most part, I was able to keep the characters straight but near the end, when many of the characters find themselves in the same place, I had a hard time keeping up with who was who.

I wish There There had remained a collection of short stories with overlapping characters and no climatic final event. The book’s greatest strength is its characters. I was surprised by how much I liked each one I met in Part I. I would have read a whole book following their days and thoughts. I was more interested in that than the Reservoir Dogs-esque robbery gone wrong at the end.

If There There insists on having a mass shooting, then put it in the middle of the book right after the Interlude. Finishing a story at the point of a mass shooting makes the shooters the protagonists of your work. Simple as that. If the story ends there, then the story was about them. I would have liked to see the fallout of the event, seen how the country reacted to such a thing (how would America react if Native Americans perpetuated a mass shooting at a Native American event?), and seen how these characters coped and interacted.

This is a first novel and it shows in parts. The dialogue is awkward with page-long data dumps where people express themselves and their feelings with great detail in a way that seems more diary than speech.

An interesting stylistic choice made by Orange is telling different chapters of the same character in different ways: Tony Loneman’s first chapter (p.15) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.142) is in third person, present tense. Calvin Johnson’s first chapter (p.88) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.144) is in third person, past tense. Dene Oxendene and Jackie Red Feather have both of their first two chapters in third person, but Dene’s are both present tense while Jackie has past tense, then present. And so on. Orange has good control of every style and tense, but it was odd that many characters started in first person when the end is told completely in third person. Orange starts us very close to these characters only to pull us further and further away the more time we spend with them. Continue reading

“There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights”

There WIll Be No

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s 2012 chapbook of nine short (short!) stories. I read a 2017 Bull City Press reprint edition.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This entire book runs the length of a short story but van den Berg packs plot, emotion, and her usual beautiful writing into each page. The stories live; the characters have a past and future and the mind tries to follow them beyond the story – the sign of a great short story writer.

I hate to admit it, but for years I didn’t think I liked female authors or main characters. This breaks my heart now and I wonder how many great books I’ve missed. I’m thankful that authors like van den Berg have shown me strong, complex, fascinating female characters that I connect to. In the past six months, she’s become one of my favorites.

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“Friday Black”

Friday Black.jpg

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of twelve short stories, published in 2018. I read a first edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback from the library.

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 3.5 out of 5 stars. (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

As sometimes happens with short story collections, my ratings veer wildly from story to story. The opener (“The Finkenstein 5”, note [1]) is a stunning 5-star piece and deserves to be iconized like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, while “Light Spitter” (note [26]), only receives 1 star. (While technically written well, the plot and execution didn’t sit well with me.)

Adjei-Brenyah covers an incredible range of reality to fantasy, from “Things My Mother Said” (note [5]) which reads as purely autobiographical to “The Hospital Where” (note [15]) which carries so much nightmare/dream logic that it is barely comprehensible. The other stories fall along this spectrum, some hardly different from reality at all (“Zimmer Land”, note [20]) to creating their own sci-fi reality (“The Era”, note [7] and “Through the Flash”, note [32]).

I love grounded stories with one or two weird elements (the more I think on it, the more moving and incredible “Lark Street”, note [12] becomes). Adjei-Brenyah delivers sharp satire and insight on being black in America today through fantastical plots. He’s a modern Weird Fiction writer carrying the mantle of 1940s/50s Ray Bradbury.

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Post 2/2)

Frankenstein in Baghdad b

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.


[25] Reference:

According to the astrologers, these ghosts were called tawabie al-khouf, the “familiars of fear.”

(p.113)

Searching this term refers back to Frankenstein in Baghdad. Trying to run it through a translator gives me: Toby fear.

[26]

He believed that emotions changed memories, that when you lost the emotion associated with a particular event, you lost an important part of the event.

(p.119)

[27]

“The people on the bridge died because they were frightened of dying.”

(p.123)

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Post 1/2)

Frankenstein in Baghdad a

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Ahmed Saadawai’s 2014 novel, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Translated by Jonathan Wright and published in English in 2018. I read a Penguin Books paperback from the library. 

Buy the Book.  

3 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Junk dealer and tall-tale-teller Hadi stitches a man out of bombing victims’ body parts. Infused with life from a murdered security guard, the Whatsitsname sets out on a never-ending quest for justice.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a perfect example of a three-star book; could have been better, could have been worse.

The most interesting idea of the novel, the Whatsitsname, isn’t given much screen time. Chapter 10, which the Whatsitsname narrates, is a five-star knockout, almost a perfect short story in itself. The second half of the book suffered after the excitement of that chapter, wrapping up without much of a farewell to the characters I really liked (Elishva and Hadi) and too much time with the least interesting (newspaper man Mahmoud). The odd meta-inclusion and first-person chapter of “the writer” in Chapter 18 is jarring and doesn’t pay out.

The story moves along with touches of black humor and sharp allegory. Don’t be intimidated by the page-long cast list at the beginning: the narrative reiterates people’s relationships to one another and their roles enough to follow along without checking the list (several of the characters are only in a single scene, as well).

Saadawi has a stylistic tic which might throw some readers – he likes to start a scene with a character, then go back over the past 1-3 days of their life to catch up to where the scene started. As we jump between characters, I was unsure of how much time was passing or if events were happening concurrently. Some reader feedback and a final solid edit could have lifted Frankenstein in Baghdad to a 4-star book, but it’s pretty good as it is. Continue reading

“Desirable Body” (Post 2/2)

Desirable Body b

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1


[35] Vocabulary:

When would he find the strength to pull himself out of this gangue that had no defined limits?

(p.102)

 

In mining, gangue is the commercially worthless material that surrounds, or is closely mixed with, a wanted mineral in an ore deposit.

[36] Reference:

Thanks to Jean Dausset’s well-known research on tissue compatibility.

(p.104)

 

Jean Dausset (1916-2009) was a French immunologist born in Toulouse, France. Dausset received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1980 along with Baruj Benacerraf and George David Snell for their discovery and characterization of the genes making the major histocompatibility complex. Dausset founded the Human Polymorphism Study Center (CEPH) in 1984.

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