“Gut Symmetries”

Gut Symmetries photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Jeannette Winterson’s 1997 novel. I read an Alfred A. Knopf Borzoi first edition hardcover.

Buy the Book.

(or buy Frankissstein instead…)

1 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Alice, a physicist and Stella, a poet, fall in love after Alice begins an affair with Stella’s husband.

The most unpleasant book I’ve ever stuck with until the end. I should have bailed when the urge first hit me, twenty pages in, but Winterson’s Frankissstein impressed me so much that I believed things would come together. But the occasional beautiful phrase became exhausting with no plot cohesion and no characters to care about.

The book’s description makes this sound like an exploration of a polyamorous relationship between two scientists and a poet, which is an awesome starting point for a plot. But Alice and Stella don’t even meet until halfway through. Even then, Alice is fixated on her father’s life and death and Stella tells magical realistic stories of her birth and family. I never had a grip on the personalities of any of the three main characters. I have no idea what attracted them to each other. I have no idea who they are. But I know a lot about their parents.

I also expected science to play more of a role here, but this book is much more interested in mysticism and magic (the chapters are named after tarot cards and I have no idea why). Continue reading

“Apartment”

Apartment photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Teddy Wayne’s 2020 novel. I read a Bloomsbury Publishing first edition.

Buy the Book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

In 1996 New York, a lonely young man in Columbia’s MFA writing program tentatively befriends a talented fellow student before discovering their fundamental differences may prevent them from reaching the closeness he desires.

This is the rare 3-star rating that comes about because I honestly don’t know how I feel after reading this book. I have no idea how to judge or rate it. I don’t know who it’s for, though I feel like 90’s kids who dreamed of being writers will get the deepest gut punch out of the idiotic betrayal the narrator commits. On page 163, I had to walk away from the book for hours, my skin absolutely crawling and nearly in a cold sweat. This is not an insult. The last time I had to drop a book and leave it in another room was Gerald’s Game (light spoilers: the hand trauma scene). I don’t think an emotionally violent act has ever hit me so hard.

My favorite plot of all time is seeing two people go from strangers to friendship with all the tentative steps in between. The first half of this book revels in that and was so emotionally satisfying. The second half of the book tears it down and takes it to an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Both main characters are pieces of shit in their own ways and I wasn’t rooting for anybody.

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“The Winner Stands Alone”

The Winner Stands Alone photo

[Explanation of Writing Journal Entries/Ratings]

Paulo Coelho’s 2008 novel. I read a 2009 HarperCollins first edition hardcover, with English translation by Margaret Jull Costa.

Buy the Book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Fates collide over twenty-four hours at the Cannes Film Festival as a killer strikes indiscriminately to gain the attention of his ex-wife.

I tried reading Coehlo’s The Alchemist in high school and gave up halfway through (I don’t remember the specifics, but I really didn’t like it). The Winner Stands Alone was recommended by a friend who also didn’t love The Alchemist, so it seemed a good way to give Coehlo another shot.

The Winner Stands Alone gets a 4 for entertainment value and 2 on execution. The sexual politics are wretched, the dialogue overwrought and oddly overexplaining, the plot redundant and nasty and about a bunch of nasty people. I enjoyed the hell out of it in the way I enjoy binge-watching Hoarders once a year.

There are a good number of women as main characters in this book, but they all feel straight out of male fiction from the 1960s and 70s. The women see all other women as idiots and think they themselves are the only ones with brains. They see their virtues and strengths only by describing other women as faceless drones. It’s a bit annoying and I don’t think Coelho realizes that he’s being as nasty to women by doing this as if he simply cut the middle man (so to speak) and called the main characters brainless whores.

The Winner Stands Alone will disappoint fans of The Alchemist and the audience that would like it will probably be daunted by Coehlo’s name and what they assume that means. But it’s fun. If you don’t think it’s weird to say a book about a serial killer and a bunch of vapid, preachy assholes is fun, then check it out.

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“The Black Cathedral”

The Black Cathedral photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Buy the Book!

Marcial Gala’s novel, originally published in Spanish in 2012. I read a 2020 Farrar, Straus and Giroux first edition with translation by Anna Kushner.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A chorus of voices tells what happens in Cienfuegos after a religious family moves to town and begins endless work on a church.

Warning at the top: The Black Cathedral is filled with violence. Gala is very straightforward in his descriptions, even the worst events, but he’s not gratuitous in the descriptions. Some readers might find the events themselves gratuitous, though.

The story is told by a huge cast of swapping narrators. Don’t be intimidated or worry about keeping a cast list beside you; Gala is very good, through context, of reminding us who each character is and their relationships.

There are touches of magic and surrealism (the ghost of a murdered man guides a character), but the plot never collapses under deus ex machina.

(I usually split up posts when they reach this size, but I’m going to post this all at once to make it easier to search.) Continue reading

“The Regrets”

The Regrets photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Amy Bonnaffons debut novel, published in 2020. I read a Little, Brown and Company first edition hardcover.

Buy the Book.

 2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Due to an angel assignment error during death, Thomas is given three more months in his body on earth, but told to make no human connections, lest he create regrets.

The Regrets shifts between first person narrators Thomas, Rachel (who enters into a relationship with Thomas after watching him at a bus stop), and Mark (Rachel’s ex-boyfriend). Rachel’s sections connect with me the most  – I like her as a person (the fact that she’s a librarian doesn’t hurt), but Thomas comes off as an asshole from the start and Mark lacks personality.

If you looking for satire dressed in afterlife-bureaucracy, you will not get it here. After Thomas’ initial death, the book shifts to focus heavily on the sexual aspect of love. It features casual scenes of sex and masturbation and fantasies and lots of wet underwear, which is nice, but will throw some off (and isn’t quite what the book description promised).

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“Now You’re One of Us”

Now You're One of Us photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Asa Nonami’s novel, originally published as Anki in 1993. I read a 2007 first edition Vertical, Inc. paperback with English translation by Michael Volek & Mitsuko Volek.

Buy the Book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Twenty-six-year-old newlywed Noriko becomes suspicious of her new large family when unexplained death and dealings reveal themselves.

Now You’re One of Us never fully achieves the Rosemary’s Baby vibe it’s going for. The mysteries aren’t that mysterious, the chills not very chilling. The writing and plot beats become repetitive but as someone who will give any horror movie a chance, this book engaged me enough to keep going.

Asa Nonami nicely captures a timeless, isolated, Gothic feel to the story even though it’s taking place in 1990s Tokyo. Though there’s not much in the way of  sharp prose and nothing too clever or shocking, Now You’re One of Us is good enough. And sometimes good enough is good enough.

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“Weather”

Weather photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Jenny Offill’s 2020 novel. I read an Alfred A. Knopf first edition hardcover which, by the way, is a beautifully printed and manufactured book. The size was lovely, the pages satisfyingly thick, the cover amazing.

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

As the 2016 U.S. election unfolds, university librarian Lizzie worries about the fate of the planet, her family, and herself.

Think of the title in its noun and verb forms and you’ll have a good idea of the vibe here.

Weather is a spiritual sequel to Offill’s 2014 Dept. of Speculation and right off the top, I’d recommend you read that one first because they complement each other. In Dept., the narrator has a daughter, in Weather a son, but the characters feel incredibly close.

Weather also continues the fragmentary narrative style. This is a novel of bite-sized thoughts that circles the same characters and places until a story emerges. But, also like Dept., the setup created for this narrator reaches a point, plateaus, and then the book quietly ends with the feeling that dramatic, life-altering moments are just in the future.

Weather is mainly about the tangled web of obligations and priorities family creates. Lizzie is extremely close to her recovering addict brother, Henry, often at the expense of her son and husband. Her mother expresses interest at moving closer to Lizzie (suggesting that she move into Lizzie’s apartment), and Lizzie doesn’t even know how to respond to the request. Every decision, as simple as it seems, is fraught with conflicting weight and the quiet stress of the narrator hums like a current on every page.

I’m not going to share every quote and section I enjoyed from this book since it’s a newer release. If what I share interests you, find a copy and read it! Continue reading

“Such a Fun Age”

Such a Fun Age photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kiley Reid’s debut novel, published in 2019. I read Putnum 2020 “Reese’s Book Club” hardcover.

Buy the Book!

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

(Please world, make a movie)

The Plot:

Post-college Emira Tucker is soon to be kicked off her parents’ health insurance and working as a babysitter to the affluent Chamberlains. After being accused of kidnapping the Chamberlains’ daughter in a grocery store, Emira finds herself increasingly caught between her employer and her new boyfriend, who both believe the other is using her.

The book flap description is misleading: “When the video of Emira goes public and unearths someone from Alix’s past (…)” – and this actually kept me from reading the book for awhile. I thought this would quickly become a viral-on-social-media book; that Emira would be grappling with unexpected infamy from the beginning. Trying not to spoil too much, I will tell you: the person from Alix’s past is not unearthed by the spreading of the video. The video stays quiet for the majority of the book and we get to know the characters before it becomes a central issue. Reid handles it so much better than I expected.

Such a Fun Age is incredibly readable with mic-drop moments that make you need to keep going. This was one of those read-in-twenty-four-hours numbers, where I went to bed late and woke up early with nothing but this book on my mind.

The narrative shifts between the third-person perspectives of Emira and her boss, Alix Chamberlain, though Emira is really the main character here and this is her story. The child she babysits, Briar, may be my favorite child character of all time (see note [7]). She made me laugh and broke my heart and I loved her relationship with Emira. Both women had close-knit friend groups of three other women who are the ones they mostly turn to for advice and support. There are men around, primarily Emira’s boyfriend and Alix’s husband, but they are not the primary relationship in these women’s lives. Which is kind of awesome.

One thing: a large part of the plot hinges on the coincidence of the same person appearing in both women’s lives without any planning on anyone’s part. You need to accept that and move on if you’re going to enjoy the book. It’s like accepting magic is real to enjoy a fantasy novel or accepting a demon stalking a family in a horror movie. If you can do that, you can roll with Such a Fun Age. And you should. Continue reading

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Charlie photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Roald Dahl’s 1964 classic. I read a September 2001 Borzoi Book hardcover with Quentin Blake illustrations.

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: At least 6?

Seen the Movie: 1971 Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder version a TON.

2005 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version once (and did not like).

The Plot:

Young Charlie Bucket’s dream of entering a legendary candymaker’s factory comes true.

Roald Dahl was my first favorite author (probably along with a lot of nineties kids) and I’ve been meaning to revisit his work. Insanely, I didn’t like the Gene Wilder movie as a kid – I thought the beginning was boring, the rest confusing and too strange. As an adult, I watch it once a year – it’s a kid’s version of the space section of Jordorowski’s The Holy Mountain (no joke) and I love it.

The book is different enough from the movie to make it worth experiencing both if you’re interested in the story. Though in the book, the only character who comes away with any personality at all is Wonka himself in all his charming madness. Continue reading

“The Paper Wasp”

The Paper Wasp photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura Acampora’s debut novel. I read a 2019 Grove Press first edition.

Buy the Book!

(paperback was released March 17, 2020)

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Childhood best friends reunite at their ten-year high school reunion, leading to unbalanced Abby living with movie star Elise in California.

The plot of this sounded like a cousin to Tara Isabella Burton’s excellent Social Creature, so of course I had to read it. I didn’t love Acampora’s novel-in-short-stories The Wonder Garden, but her style and sensibilities seemed well-suited for this plot. And they are.

I don’t want to tell you much more about what happens in this book. Even if I did, it doesn’t go where you think. That might drive some people crazy, but I loved the strange vibe and unexpected trajectory and I couldn’t put this book down.

The story is told in first person, past tense, addressed to “you” (meaning Elise). I’m not entirely sure why Acampora made this choice. It works, but in the end, I didn’t feel Abby’s connection to Elise was strong enough to warrant her telling the story to Elise. There is another character who could have served as the “you”, the one Abby ends up going to. But again, I don’t want to say too much.

Continue reading