“We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

We Have Always

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, the final published in her lifetime. I read a 2006 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition from the library. 

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: There’s a movie?! No, I have not seen it, but Crispin Glover as Julian? I’m adding it to my watchlist.

The Plot:

Two sisters and their uncle live as social outcasts after the arsenic deaths of the rest of their family.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle will never have The Haunting of Hill House’s power over me, though I know in certain circles Castle is seen as the superior work, Merricat considered a stronger character than Eleanor Vance. I agree with the latter; Merricat is an active character and certain of what she wants and how to get it. But while Hill House is told in third person, drifting in and out of Eleanor’s thoughts, Castle is first person and we are stuck firmly in Merricat’s head for the entire book. And I get extraordinarily impatient with Merricat around the halfway point of this 150 page book.

Merricat is an unreliable narrator, being prone to flights of fancy and reading the wrong emotions in the people around her. With both readings, I’ve wondered if Constance is fearful of her where Merricat sees only love.

The story ultimately can only be accepted as fairy tale because I can’t believe these two women live alone and isolated the way Merricat describes; by the end of the book it sounds like years have passed since the fire but how would they have survived winters? How do they still have electricity and running water? Continue reading

Advertisements

“Mars”

Mars

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

 Asja Bakić’s collection of ten short stories, originally published in Croatia in 2015. I read a 2019 Feminist Press edition translated by Jennifer Zoble (from the ever-awesome library).

Buy the Book.

3 out 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

Ten stories that lean pleasingly toward speculative and science fiction. Several feel like excerpts from novels or the genesis of an idea waiting to be fleshed out (“The Guest”, note [32]; “The Underworld, note [40]). Some work on hard-to-penetrate interior nightmare/dream logic (“Day Trip to Durmitor”, note [1]; “Carnivore”, note [24]), some stand wonderfully on their own (“Buried Treasure”, note [8]; “Passions”, note [26]). All are worth experiencing.

The translation by Jennifer Zoble is excellent and the physical quality of the paperback is beautiful (nice, thick pages, smooth cover, perfect size). Continue reading

“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!)

Buy the Book.

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

“Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”

Whatever Happened to IL

Kathleen Collins’ first posthumous fiction collection. I read a first edition HarperCollins Ecco paperback from the library.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Collins, who died very young in 1988, was primarily known as a filmmaker, directing two features. She was also (from kathleencollins.org/about) a poet, editor, civil rights activist (who some credit with the first use of “I have a dream”), essayist, teacher, and screenwriter among many other things. It’s worth reading her biography. She lived an incredible life.

The stories in this collection were written in the 1970s but feel shockingly modern. Collins’ voice is fresh and direct, emotional and heartbreaking. Most of the sixteen stories are very short, more like snapshots than fully fleshed-out tales. The fact that they read so well coming unpolished and fragmented from journals is astonishing. The title story, one of the longer pieces, is a standout five-star-story; most others are above average. Continue reading

“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.

Buy the Book.

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

“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.

Buy the Book.

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.

Continue reading

“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.

Buy the Book.

 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.

Continue reading

“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.


Continue reading

“The White Book”

the white book

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Han Kang’s 2016 sparse, meditative, autobiographical (?) work, translated by Deborah Smith and published in English in 2017. I read a copy from the library (which they awesomely ordered after a purchase request. Thank you, library!).

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A woman ruminates on the color white and its relationship to her mother’s first child, who died soon after birth.

The White Book is more poetry than narrative, which is always a challenge for me. The text feels more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.

I understood that I was reading deeply moving imagery and ideas but couldn’t emotionally connect. The strongest feeling I had was admiration for Han Kang’s prose (and that admiration is enough to give the book an above-average rating, despite how this intro must sound).

So, sadly, The White Book did not work for me, but for the reader who can connect, it will be loved. Because it is such a short book (and newly released in hardcover), I am not going to share all of the quotes I wrote down. I’ll give you enough to know if you want to read it, but I’m not going to spoil the best parts. Continue reading

“The Isle of Youth”

ioy 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s second short story collection, published in 2013. I read the FSG Originals paperback edition from my library.

Buy the Book.

 4 out of 5 stars (stories averaged).

 Times Read: 1

One of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Van den Berg never does the obvious thing. Whenever I thought I was ahead of the story, it turned back on me. None of these stories go where you think, none of them end where you think a short story should end. It’s exciting as a reader and it’s a great strength of van den Berg’s.

A feeling of truth fills each story – hidden deep, never discussed, but felt by many. The Third Hotel also had this effect on me. An author who can do it more than once is one to hold dear.

Van den Berg doesn’t supply answers to everything. People disappear in these tales and you won’t find out what happened to them. People die and you don’t know how, the whys are not spelled out. But she gives enough emotional information to make you care and understand. You will come to your own conclusions and every conclusion is correct.

While most of the female leads are in marriages – often troubled – the real connections here are between siblings. Brothers, sisters, twins; dead, alive, estranged.


Continue reading