“Women Talking”

Women Talking

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel. I read a 2019 Bloomsbury Publishing first American edition from the library (who awesomely ordered it after a purchase request. Thank you, library!)

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3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

In the aftermath of vicious drugging and rapes by the men of their community, a group of Mennonite women discuss three options: Do Nothing. Stay and Fight. Leave.

Women Talking is an incredibly well-written book with two problems: (1) The narrator is uninteresting and unlikeable (2) It runs about fifty pages too long.

The narrator is August Epp, a man of the community assigned to take the minutes of the women’s discussion. He is consumed with his past and his affections for one of the women present and has a maddening combination of insecurity and a need to give the women advice and parables. I was as irritated at him as some of the women by the middle and I wished I could see the story from outside of his head. Was this part of Toews’ commentary? Showing how women’s narratives are so often distorted through male perspective?

The best parts are when August stays in the background and we are allowed to watch and listen to the women. But be warned – this reads like a play. If you don’t like reading plays, you will hate this (there is a strong Waiting for Godot element here).

I love Toews’ decision to begin this after the assaults. Most books about rape would lead up to the attacks and end soon after the perpetrators were discovered and/or punished, focusing on the men. It was fantastic to see a story dealing with aftermath. What happens after? How do we continue after pain? This is like if Tommy Orange had started There There after the climactic event (which I think would have made a more compelling story). These are the narratives I want right now.

Like Ling Ma’s Severance, there are no quotations to separate dialogue. This is never confusing. We always know who is speaking, we always know what is dialogue and what is inner monologue.

Women Talking works best in moments and single exchanges. I had to restrain myself from putting every quote I loved here. I don’t want to give too much away. Continue reading

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“The New Me”

The New Me

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Halle Butler’s debut novel. I read a first edition Penguin paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Millie is trapped in a cycle of temp jobs, coming home to a dirty apartment, watching television and drinking until she falls asleep. She doesn’t know how to make it better, she doesn’t even know if it could be better.

The New Me stars an angry, lonely, drifting, aimless young white woman who can only afford her Chicago apartment with financial help from her parents. Millie is caustic, thinking thoughts about fellow train passengers like: A man across the train looks at me like I’m the villain, and then he looks down. Now he’s my enemy, too, how does he like that? (p.6). Millie is abrasive. Millie is difficult. I relate; I came so close to living her life.

At first, The New Me plays satirical and satisfying in a nasty way. We look down on the people around Millie when Millie does. Then, about halfway through, a shift: Butler shows us how Millie looks to others, how everyone in her world is lonely and struggling and wanting to be better, wanting to be more. We see Millie’s problems beyond ennui, we see her (refreshingly) loving parents who may be fueling some of her issues without realizing it. Inevitable dread sets in. No matter what Millie does, if she begins her day with a jog or vomiting from a hangover, the world will continue to process her in the same way. The illusion of creating a new self in adulthood is broken.

The strangest thing The New Me does is switch from first-person chapters from Millie’s point of view to very short third-person chapters from other characters’ perspective. These make up only about thirty pages of 191. One character, Karen, shows up multiple times, the others only get the spotlight once. This may turn some people off, but if you connect with The New Me at all, it’s worth the ride.

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“Severance” (Post 2/2)

Severance 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

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[40]

The sex we were having was not romantic. It was matter-of-fact sex, sex that was trying to do something, to stake a claim, to mark territory.

(p.138)

[41] Reference:

In a large, glass exhibition space that looks like the Javits Center.

(p.138-39)

 

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, commonly known as the Javits Center, is a large convention center located in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. The controversial and revolutionary space frame structure was begun in 1980, finished in 1986, and named for United States Senator Jacob Javits, who died that year.

[42] Reference:

Bodega snacks, like those Sponch marshmallow cookies.

(p.150)

 

From Amazon’s product description:

Marinela Sponch marshmallow cookies are scrumptious treats that have been loved for generations. Colorful marshmallows sprinkled with coconut and strawberry toppings adorn this delectable cookie.

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“Severance” (Post 1/2)

Severance 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Ling Ma’s 2018 novel. I read a Farrar, Straus and Giroux first edition from the library.

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 4 out of 5 stars.

 Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Candance Chen, the daughter of deceased Chinese immigrants, clings to her life in New York while Shen Fever destroys the world around her.

Severance has more than a passing resemblance to Laura van den Berg’s Find Me and suffers from a similar problem: the chronological first half of the story (the dissolution of society,  family dynamics and pre-sickness city life of the narrator) is much more interesting than the second half (when survivors band together). Ling Ma holds her book together better than van den Berg by telling both sides of the story throughout the entire book. We alternate between pre-Shen Fever to post-Shen Fever from chapter to chapter, but the New York sections always hold my interest more. The group of survivors never come to life; Candance spends the better part of a year with them and I never feel I know them while her NYC co-workers and lovers seem interesting and complex after single scenes.

Ling Ma combines apocalyptic unease with a moving tale of immigrant experience. The writing is honest; this hardly feels like fiction. I believe everything Candace tells me. She is a loner, set in her ways, unapologetic for her actions. I enjoyed following her and found the touches of satire and black humor spot-on. I loved her frank discussions of sex and personal flaws. I admired the effective moments of horror.

An odd stylistic choice to warn purists about: no quotation marks are used for dialogue but Ling Ma handles this effortlessly; there was only one point where I was confused whether Candace was speaking aloud or thinking in her head. Otherwise, we know exactly who is talking and when. Continue reading

“Territory of Light”

ToL

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Yuko Tsushima’s novel of twelve short stories, originally published in Gunzo magazine in 1978-79, translated by Geraldine Harcourt in 2018. I read a 2019 Farrar, Straus and Giroux first edition from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A newly-single mother struggles to maintain her role against inner cruelties and outside stresses while raising her toddler daughter.

Territory of Light is a collection of twelve pieces that read like a novel. It was originally published over the course of a year in a magazine, which gives the chapters an episodic feeling and explains why situations are sometimes reiterated from earlier sections.

I know next to nothing about Yuko Tsushima but this writing has the honesty of autobiography. Even with so personal a story, Tsushima somehow makes it universal. I read Territory of Light in an evening, sometimes close to tears, sometimes shocked by Tsushima’s brutal honesty.

Territory of Light also gets the award for the best use of dreams I’ve encountered in a book. Not too on-the-nose or prophetic; never too personal or specific to understand.

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