“Desirable Body” (Post 1/2)

Desirable Body a

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


A novel by Hubert Haddad, originally published in French in 2015, translated by Alyson Waters and published in English in 2018. I read a first edition Yale University Press paperback from the library.

Buy the Book.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

The recipient of the first successful head (body?) transplant grapples with identity and the meaning of self and soul.

I haven’t been this frustrated while reading since Infinite Jest, another book where an interesting plot was bogged down by unnecessarily challenging word choices and unneeded references. Desirable Body squanders a fantastic premise.

The characters are hollow, their relationships hardly explained or explored. Cedric, the consciousness remaining after the head/body transplant, is estranged from his wealthy father. Even after his father pays for his treatment and recovery, Cedric never speaks to his father during the novel; they are never in the same room. The most important scenes are skipped and summarized after the fact. Scenes I expected simply never came. All of the action – except the transplant itself – happens off-screen.

It’s probably odd to give a two-part review for such a short, poorly rated book, but Haddad packs Desirable Body with references and dialogue in different languages (mostly Italian) that I needed to look up.

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“The Perfect Nanny”

The Perfect Nanny 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Leila Slimani’s 2016 novel, translated by Sam Taylor and published in English in 2018. I read a Penguin Books paperback from the library.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A beloved nanny kills two children under her care, to the horror and confusion of all.

Calling this book The Perfect Nanny gives the wrong impression. The title/cover combination made me think I was getting a melodramatic Hand That Rocks the Cradle thriller. In French, the title is Chanson Douce, which translates to “sweet/soft/gentle song” or “lullaby” and suits the story so much better.

Because of the quote on the back comparing it to Gone Girl (and, perhaps, because of my misunderstanding of Gone Girl), I thought this was a mystery. I thought we were being led to assume the nanny (Louise) was the killer, but it would be revealed that someone else (her disappeared daughter, the younger nanny she befriends, her older lover) had broken in and committed the murders, framing her. Louise’s name is not used in the first chapter (where we see the aftermath of the attack) but she is the killer and I think Slimani wants us to know this from the start; the story is not a mystery, it is an exploration of stress and weakness and the weight of social expectation. And it is very good.

The Perfect Nanny is mostly told in present tense with the occasional bit in past tense. The chapters are 3-5 page vignettes, sometimes with a name at the start (Stephanie, Rose Grinberg, Jacques, Hector Rouvier). At first, I thought these names were suspects. Now, I’m not sure why they’re there. They are not needed; we quickly understand who is being discussed and their relationship to Louise. If they are supposed to be represent the people who caused extreme stress to Louise, then why don’t we get chapters titled Bertrand Alizard and Wafa? (If anyone has ideas on the reasoning behind the chapter names, I’d love to hear them!)

The book is most powerful with the characterizations of Louise and Myriam (the mother of the murdered children). Both women are filled with complexity and nuance and Myriam’s pain, the horror she receives for pursing her loved career, hits so hard.

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“Mouthful of Birds”

Mouthful of Birds

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection, translated by Megan McDowell and published in 2019. I read a Riverhead Books first edition hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

In her terrifying (and fantastic) novel Fever Dream, Schweblin infused the mundane with an aura of dread – things are almost normal but warped. Mouthful of Birds carries that same vibe throughout its 19 stories (in 228 pages! These are swift tales).

Most of the stories begin in a recognizable world but gain nightmarish elements – sometimes it’s obvious (a teenage girl whose diet consists wholly of live birds), sometimes it’s a feeling (a depressed brother in a family with impossibly good luck).

Schweblin writes dark fairy tales for adults using simple language and locations (I hardly had to look anything up for this book). Megan McDowell does another great translating job (check out her site for other translated works; in the past year, I’ve read five with her name on it and they were all fantastically translated, fascinating books).

Great short stories (the ones that become immortal), need to score high on three elements: character(s), situation, and end. Schweblin nails the first two almost every time, but the third is often vague, confusing, or flat. You cannot have a 5-star story without all three and no story in Mouthful of Birds reaches that mark, though most are above average and certainly worth spending the time to read.


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“My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

My Year 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, released in 2018. I read a first edition hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A young New York City art gallery employee wants to sleep through her life. No dreams, no memories, just blessed blanks to fill out the days. A questionable therapist assists her in her quest.

I tried reading Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen and though I loved the straightforward, caustic narrator, I realized after a hundred pages that there wasn’t enough story to keep me going. It kept circling a situation I wasn’t interested in.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation has a similar swirling plot and sardonic lead, but this time it worked for me. I love New York City stories (and podcasts and movies… I love the rhythm and humor and intelligent fuck-you-ism of NYC artists). I intensely connected to the narrator, so much that it took me until page 188 to realize she hadn’t been given a name.

A note of warning: this is a don’t-try-this-at-home story. Some elements may be upsetting depending on where you’re coming from. The narrator takes fistfuls of pills constantly with little consequence; the dangers of addiction or overdose is not what this book is about. This is not Less Than Zero. It’s not some after-school-special cautionary tale. It is a book for people who don’t need warnings against tying plastic bags around their heads. I respect that. I respect this book’s respect for me.

There’s a Fight Club vibe here: a friend who often appears as though “summoned” by the narrator’s thoughts, the inability of the narrator to know what she’s doing when “asleep”, the unnamed narrator in general… I was expecting a twist that (thankfully) did not come. My Year stands on its own, as its own thing.

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“Let the Right One In” (Post 2/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.


[34] Reference:

Right next to the door there was a cast iron hedgehog shoe wiper with prickles made of piassava fibers.

(p.154)

 

A fibrous product of two Brazilian palms: Attalea funifera and Leopoldinia piassaba. It is often used in making brooms.

[35] Vocabulary:

“The father was in villeinage to the lord who owned the land, and had to work many days for him.”

(p.157)

 

A villein, otherwise known as cottar, crofter, is a serf tied to the land in the feudal system. Villeins had more rights and status than those in slavery, but were under a number of legal restrictions which differentiated them from the freeman.

[36]

Then Eli looked at the books in the bookcase and Oskar gave a synopsis of his favorite: The Fog by James Herbert.

(p.169)

Sounds about right for a 12-year-old! I would have loved that book at 12 (see my review). Continue reading

“Let the Right One In” (Post 1/2)

let me in 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel, published in Sweden in 2004 and translated by Ebba Segerberg in 2007. I read a Thomas Dunne Books English film adaptation paperback edition (with the alternate title Let Me In). 

Buy the Book.

2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: Yes. Both the 2008 Swedish adaptation (Let the Right One In) and the 2010 American adaptation (Let Me In). Both are excellent, 4-star films.

The Plot:

In late 1981, pre-teen outcast Oskar meets a strange girl while his small Swedish town is wracked with disappearances and murders.

After seeing both film versions, I went into this with too-high expectations. The movies do a wonderful job of cutting through the extraneous to find the core: Oskar and Eli and their friendship. They are the heart and soul of this thing and the most interesting dynamic.

Lindqvist gives far too many details about far too many characters and unlike Stephen King (who all reviews seem to compare him to), Lindqvist does a poor job distinguishing his characters from one another and making us care about them. For most of the book, I couldn’t keep track of the difference between Tommy and Tomas and Jonny and Jimmy. The group of friends at the Chinese restaurant are interchangeable. The payoff for these side characters also falls flat, especially Tommy. We don’t need so much buildup for such a small climax.

The style itself is lackluster and has a maddening habit of repeating the same scene multiple time from different perspectives, which slows the pace instead of adding anything. Also, the story occasionally moves to present tense, though I couldn’t figure out any plot-driven reason why.

There’s no consistency to the main characters; at the beginning, Oskar is presented as overweight, mentally imbalanced, and incontinent, but after meeting Eli, he just seems like a moody kid. Eli also seems to change whenever the plot requires.

Lindqvist does add some interesting elements to vampire mythology; explanations of why certain rules exist and how they work. He refreshingly keeps religion mostly out of it (at least the infected’s reaction to crosses/churches/holy water, etc).

Overall? I might be giving it a below-average rating, but I spent the better part of a weekend reading it, which says something for the entertainment value.

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