“Death in Her Hands”

Death in Her Hands pic

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2020 novel. I read a Penguin Press eBook through my library.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Seventy-two-year-old widow Vesta Gul finds a disturbing note on her morning walk

This book is haunted. Proceed at your own risk. It eats into your mind and your only protection after finishing is not thinking about it. After a day, you might believe you have enough distance to start examining the edges and then you’ll bump into something that shatters every direct line you established and you’ll be too spooked to go on.

Moshfegh puts you so far into Vesta’s mind and makes her so real that questioning her reality feels like questioning your own. It’s incredibly unsettling. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m going to be careful with what I say and quote this time.

Death in Her Hands feels almost like sci-fi or alternate history. It’s our world but there’s something wrong at the edges, even though nothing Vesta describes (her cabin at the lake, her pet dog Charlie, driving to town, walking in the woods) is sci-fi at all.

To be sure, this is for the Weird fiction fans out there. This is not a cozy mystery.

Continue reading

“The Story of My Teeth”

The Story of My Teeth photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Valeria Luiselli’s 2013 novel, written in collaboration with workers at Ecatepec’s Jumex juice factory. I read a 2015 Coffee House Press edition with translation by Christina MacSweeney.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, Highway to his friends, auctioneer and collector, tells his life story through auctioneering.

Flipping through this book (and reading of its origin as a collaboration between workers and Luiselli, who never spoke in person during the production) makes it seem much more experimental than it ends up being. Which is not a bad thing. This is a fairly straightforward, slightly fantastical tale of a man’s life, first from his perspective and then, at the end, summarized again by a friend with a more objective view.

This is an engaging 160-page story. Highway’s voice rises from the page – he’s likeable even when you know he’s full of shit. Continue reading

“The Brothers Karamazov”

Brothers K photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, originally published between 1879 and 1880. I read a 2002 Farrar, Straus and Giroux paperback edition of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 1990 translation.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 3

Seen the Movie: I haven’t seen any film version. I don’t think I ever will. I don’t know how this would be a satisfying story to watch. (But William Shatner as Alexie? How does that work?)

The Plot:

Cake said it best:

Some people try to make life a little tougher than it is.

Don’t read The Brothers Karamazov for the plot. The story is tedious and infuriating. Characters self-sabotage and flip-flop and suffer random brain fever and can’t emotionally connect with each other for any length of time. It’s not a murder mystery; there is no mystery in the murderer’s identity and ultimately, I don’t care about the murdered man or what happens to the man accused of the crime.

Yes, I’ve given this book 4 stars. Yes, I’ve read it three times. Yes, this post is going to be a lovefest of me sharing quotes I like because Pevear and Volokhonsky did the rest of the work for me. This is almost as much about them as Dostoevsky. These two were the first to show me the power of translation. Reading a work they’ve translated is like eating a wonderful meal. I’ve tried reading Dostoevsky with other translations and it was miserable. Through the hands of Pevear and Volokhonsky, it becomes rich and funny and compelling with a surprisingly modern feel. They also include footnotes to explain references throughout (which was my inspiration for starting a reading journal in the first place).

The Brothers Karamazov is simply an experience. It is sometimes tedious and sometimes infuriating but ultimately fascinating. Instead of plot, what we have is a series of debates and meditations on religion and man, free will and destiny. Dostoevsky seems to come down on the side of God’s existence, or at least the importance of religion to keep men moral. I don’t agree with this, but I find his exploration compelling all the same. Continue reading

“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 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

“The Wonder Garden”

The Wonder Garden photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Lauren Acampora’s novel of short stories. I read a 2015 Grove Press first edition from the library.

Buy the Book. 

2.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

The white, upper-class citizens of Old Cranbury, Connecticut make self-destructive decisions and lead quietly unhappy lives.

I kept writing: I don’t understand these people while reading this book. I don’t understand their decisions, I don’t understand their wants and needs. Reading The Wonder Garden is like reading a book about aliens.

Acampora’s writing is functionally solid, but these are not satisfying narratives. Most stories are unresolved set-ups. The sense of resigned, impending doom would be so effective in a horror collection but she doesn’t take that next step to move this from suburban malaise to fright or gore. Some murders or supernatural monstrosities would have given this the life it needed.

The first story (“Ground Fault”) hooked me, but the book never lived up to that potential. Or maybe the problem is the sameness of the stories. After the first few, I knew the rhythm and beats – I knew as soon as anyone seemed happy that a medical problem was going to arise, a spouse was going to betray or make a sudden life change. The Wonder Garden is very much slice-of-life fiction, but it’s unrelentingly bleak and humorless. Even the darkest fiction can pop if given moments of humor and absurdity.

The characters weave in and out of each other’s stories, but many of them have similar voices and behaviors and it’s hard to keep them separate. The stories are all also told in present tense. Switching the tense or person may have helped break up the monotony. (Or maybe not.)

Continue reading

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” (Post 2/2)

A Visit 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book!


[38] B

I’m not sure why the book is separated into two parts, except that in B we start seeing future sections and it loosely follows the musical redemption of Bennie’s friend, Scotty.

 


[39] 7. A to B

 

Third person, past tense. Bennie while still married to Stephanie. 2002-04ish. A character named Bosco has titled his solo album A to B.

[40] Reference:

Her cropped dark hair and tattoo of a Minoan octopus encompassing one calf.

(p.87)

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age Aegean civilization on the island of Crete and other Aegean Islands, flourishing from c.2700 to c.1450 BC until a late period of decline, finally ending around 1100 BC. It represents the first advanced civilization in Europe. The name “Minoan” derives from the mythical King Minos and was coined by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who identified the site at Knossos with the labyrinth and the Minotaur.

[41]

Kathy was a Republican, one of those people who used the unforgivable phrase “meant to be” – usually when describing her own good fortune or the distastes that had befallen other people.

(p.88)

[42]

“Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

Jules had drifted over from across the room. “I’ve never heard that,” he said. “ ‘Time is a goon’?”

(p.96-97)

See also note [66].

Continue reading

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” (Post 1/2)

A Visit 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. I read a 2011 Alfred A. Knopf thirteenth printing hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book!

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Shifting between the late-1960s to the near-future, the lives of rock producer Bennie and his assistant Sasha are explored through their network of friends and family.

From passing descriptions of this book, I never thought I’d like it but Overdue Podcast gave a great pitch (the episode can be found here, but I recommend the show as a whole).

Goon Squad is much better than the title implies, much better than the book flap description. I also completely understand why some people could hate it; this review is not a blanket recommendation.

This book runs long. It has a tremendous amount of names and time periods to keep track of. It does not resolve. It projects a near-future (with near-future speak and slang) that causes a bit of cringing.

But here’s what Goon Squad has to offer: Absolutely assured writing. Egan seems to have no style, this book simply exists. The character voices ring true; their stories feel transcribed rather than created. I knew I was in good hands from the opening pages and even in slower chapters, it was never difficult to keep reading.

And while being clever with shifting time periods and interconnecting characters, it never feels like it betrays emotions for gimmicks. Continue reading

“salt slow” (Post 2/2)

salt slow

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book!


[36] “Granite

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A young woman experiences first love with a man who may be too good to be true.

“Granite” is the weakest story of the nine and I still give it a passing grade on the strength of Armfield’s writing. This is the only time when the title detracts from the final effect. We know exactly what’s happening the moment it starts to happen but Armfield takes her time getting there without adding any new elements.

[37] Opening lines:

There is no way to love a man. Not well, or rather, not correctly.

(p.105)

This is a great hook, but it doesn’t jive with the rest of the story; it promises something we do not get. I never get the feeling that Maggie’s love causes the events of the story. It seems her boyfriend was always fated for this and just happened to be dating her when it happened. Continue reading

“salt slow” (Post 1/2)

salt slow photo

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2

Julia Armfield’s debut short story collection. I read a 2019 Flatiron Books first edition hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book! 

4 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

salt slow is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. The only other author with such a strong offering right out of the gate was Stephen King with Night Shift. I don’t think I’ve ever rated every story in a collection at 3 stars or above; usually at least one is a dud or doesn’t connect but all nine in salt slow are compelling and well-written.

Armfield combines elements of horror, magical realism and Weird fiction without ever falling fully into one camp. More than anything, these stories have heart. There is love here but struggle, always, as well.

salt slow comes from a strong feminine perspective without putting women at odds with men. It is feminist by the strength of its characters and those characters’ interior lives, emotions, and actions. I enjoyed following all of the lead characters in all of the stories and fell in love with more than a few.

Armfield has genuinely fresh ideas (“The Great Awake”, note [7], is an especially clever What If) that could be novel-length concepts. Continue reading