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review 2018-01-23 14:50
Last Year's News & Ella's Pet Peeves in Book Marketing
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

Seems stupid to write a review of a book that everyone and their mother has read, but I'ma do it anyway.

 

This really could all be summed up with the note I wrote to myself privately on Goodreads:

DO NOT EVER BUY ANOTHER PRE-RELEASE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE AUTHOR'S WORK!

Let's do it anyway:

 

I bought this early on the strength of a review and a really good marketing plan, read half then apparently forgot to finish it. My local library's reading challenge for January includes reading a book made into a movie, and I was a bit shocked to see this one in my Kindle, so I started again from the beginning, having no clue what I'd read before, and I finished it in a couple days.

 

Turns out, The Girl on the Train wasn't half bad. It's not the best I've ever read, best I bought in 2015 or even the best I've read this month. Nonetheless, it's a decent mystery with a nice fake-out or two, and I love an unreliable narrator. I usually love a character that everyone in the book hates, unless she makes me indifferent to her, which sort of happened here. If I could've rooted more for Rachel, I might have been more invested. Oh well.

 

Now my two quibbles pet peeves: For all the women in it, it sure doesn't pass the Bechdel or any other feminist test I'm aware of. In fact, the women in this book are universally jealous, petty and horrid to each other -- even the so-called friends and especially where men are concerned. Hell, even the policewoman isn't very nice to other women. Grown women being so angry at each other for a man's infidelity or lack of trust, argh -- that time needs to pass from books right now. I'm tired of watching or reading about these women. I don't know women like this anymore, and I don't like them in books either. It's immature at best, pathetic and gross at most.

 

Quibble Pet Peeve number two is the word "literature" used to market this one. That word is supposed to mean something, and it's not about topping the best seller lists for a year. Popularity is great, but it's not the same as literary. Everyone expects a certain originality and quality to the writing that will make it stand the test of time when something is marketed as "literary fiction." (Though maybe more people will try the literary word if they think it's all like this?) Anyway, genre fiction can be literature. There are some wonderful works of literary fiction that are psychological thrillers or fantasy, mystery, western, horror, whatever. This isn't one of them. It's an indulgence, a treat, fun and relaxing read with real suspense at times. I'll make a bet The Girl on the Train will not end up part of any lasting literary canon.

 

 

picture of Amazon listings

 

Literature means "writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest" or "written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit." As it was explained to me when I kept saying "I like this kind of book" and didn't know how to find more, literature has a way of exploring how we relate to the world, rather than a story told about the world. I'm not sure this little treat fits there. No new or lasting views are found here beyond a good story, and that's fine. Again, I point out that I'd read half of this two years ago and remembered zilch about it. Not a lasting effect. If my Kindle hadn't had a bookmark and a "last place" marker, I would've sworn I didn't 1) own the book and 2) never opened it. Just don't sell me a book under false pretenses! I buy plenty of mystery books that are far from literary or even good, actually.

 

Despite these "quibbles," it was good entertainment. I'm not upset I took the time to read it.

 

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review 2018-01-22 15:26
should have hit my sweet spot, but it missed the mark for me
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel - Ben Fountain

I am perhaps the last person who truly wanted to read this book to finally do it. This was the very first book I ever bought on my Kindle. Several Kindles later, I finally got around to reading it. What threw me over the top was 1) noticing it became a movie while I've got a book that was bought on the strength of a pre-release review, which inspired me to 2) borrow the audiobook from the library and that gave me a deadline. I usually speed up audio at least a little, but this guy sounded like a chipmunk with any speed at all. He also had an annoying way of portraying all women with what I can only describe as a "stereotypical gay voice." It was so bad and so slow that I got impatient, pulled out the Kindle & just read the darned book already.

 

The title is one-hundred percent spot on. Almost all 315 pages take place on Thanksgiving Day at a Cowboy's football home game.

 

Billy Lynn is a 19 year old kid who ended up in Iraq after a judge gave him a choice. He and “Bravo squad” -- 8 close buddies and their Sargeant "Fine," are now War Heroes after a battle is caught on video and shown on Fox News. They've been brought home to do a two-week "Victory Tour," oh and bury Shroom -- one of their own who was killed in the skirmish. Shroom was Billy Lynn's closest friend, and while he's not physically there, he is ever present in Billy Lynn's mind. While on tour they've picked up Albert, a Hollywood type who has bought the rights to their story and is trying to quickly fashion a big movie "deal" before they all go back to Iraq. Oh and the US Army would prefer they didn't mention they're going back.

 

Billy Lynn comes off at first as a stupid hick, but we learn otherwise. He may lack formal education, but he's been reading over in Iraq, with recommendations from Shroom. He's read many of the books that people who don't sign up for the military pretend to read. His list is basically a "great American Books" series. He's simplistic but sharp. He lacks confidence to act impressed by himself though, and he's never sure that what he says is on target. What he has is a clear view on right and wrong, and good insight into the differences between those who fight and those who talk about the fight.

 

The satire is deep, rich and almost constant. It's well-written with great metaphors and one-liners. There's also a wonderful scene where they're greeted by yet another adoring, rich Friend of George Dubya who is foolish enough to proclaim that he's drilling oil "for the troops." Fine loses it in one of the most exquisite tirades I've ever read. 

 

I wondered what Ben Fountain would do with the current climate and all the contradictions involved in today's convoluted "patriotism;" kneeling for the anthem, or dreamers who have fought in the US services being deported...

 

Satire can be emotionally gripping, but this one wasn't. I laughed aloud and nodded agreement with the Bravos frequently. I just wasn't much affected by what I read. A book about the public-military disconnect, performative versus actual patriotism, the rich keeping their kids home while making money off the war machine; a loveable, slightly neurotic, too-smart-to-be-educated main character: this one should have hit my sweet spot, but it missed the mark for me. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in the topics I've mentioned.

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review 2018-01-21 15:39
Fruit of the Drunken Tree -- A Luminous novel of girlhood, class, tragedy, empathy and Colombia
Fruit of the Drunken Tree: A Novel - Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Fruit of the Drunken Tree broke my heart a hundred times and fully restored it almost every time.

 

by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Available July 31, 2018

 

 

When I was young, I was frequently chastised for being "too sensitive." I wasn't a wimpy sort of kid; I just felt everything -- deeply. If I was happy, I was practically delirious. When I really felt something, I was frequently accused of being melodramatic. I truly was not trying to get attention. I was just a little different from my very tightly-wound family. I projected thoughts and feelings onto everything from animals to bedsheets. I remember the weighty impact certain realizations made on me when I became aware of them: the vast number of people in the world each living their own life of which I was completely unaware, the horror of being homeless, my cousin Katie who died in a household accident before I ever knew her and who still remains six dressed in a plastic halloween costume in my mind -- that's the picture I had seen.

 

Maybe this is why the luminous story of Chula Santiago and her much-coveted friend, Petrona, resonates so deeply for me. Chula is a child who believes in ghosts and communicates her feelings to cows via impassioned "moo" sounds. She is also a girl who watches, listens and reads the adult world around her. Chula feels everything -- deeply.

 

Despite being set in Bogotá during the Pablo Escobar saga, this book is not Narcos. It is a "normal" yet strange and magical childhood taking place amid extremely unusual circumstances. Two girls from two very different worlds form an unusual bond while the world around them shapes each in her own way. It takes us on a trip from exuberant child in Bogotá to a refugee shadow in East L.A. and shows us how need or suffering can bend and transform anyone. Despite all of that, this is no sad tale.

 

The story opens when Chula's mother is looking for a new "girl" to serve as a maid in their middle-class Bogotá household. The maid, Petrona, is in actuality a 13 year old girl who has to work rather than go to school because her family has been through its own horrors as the result of the narco-war and now lives in a sort of shanty-town of pervasive poverty. As the oldest girl of nine children, Petrona has largely become maid and mother figure to her own family and now must become the breadwinner, which brings her to the Santiago household.

 

Petrona is a mystery to Chula and her sister Cassandra, who hunt the neighborhood for the Lost Souls of Purgatory and play "ding-dong-ditch" all the while trying out the adult words that swim in their minds. They wonder if she is a poet, saint, witch or possibly under a spell. Passionate Chula is impressed with how little Petrona speaks and counts every syllable that comes from her mouth. She is a mystery in their otherwise conventional lives.

 

Behind all the childrens' silliness is the very real war of Pablo Escobar with the Colombian and US governments. In Chula's voice Escobar is both a television star and an entirely inhuman monster, an ever-present source of questions and gossip who serves as an entrée into the grown-up world. The Santiagos work around Escobar's war in the most mundane ways. He is an unusual inconvenience for a family that wants to go to the mall or a movie until events and the news press their way into Chula's consciousness.

 

The book overlays a story onto a real timeline of Colombia. True historical events happen in the fictional story. It's done with a deft grace and while it's not a history book, there are events in this book that even I, an American 'tween at the time, still remember.

 

Real heart runs through all of the characters in this story. From the always-working Papá and his observation that the cows may have recently read Sartre to Mamá's advice on dealing with men and other beings to Petrona's thoughts and private worries and the two Santiago sisters who are strong-willed each in her own way.

 

Eventually, after the Santiago family has welcomed Petrona as much as they ever will and Chula gets her wish of a real bond with Petrona, the country's horrors force their way through the Santiago's door and Chula is forced to begin to grow up -- differently, though correspondingly -- to the way Petrona had before the two ever met.

 

Ingrid Rojas Contreras gives us a very authentic child's voice with laugh-aloud moments and devastating truths sometimes in the same sentence. Chula is haunted by images and events in the way only children can be -- simple and profound all at once. I've been asked not to quote, but I found this a welcome rendering of a fascinating girl that took me back to the magical kingdom of childhood.

 

And then it dumped me, along with Chula and Petrona and all the other characters into the confusing world of adulthood with all its cloying tragedy, but we are all still alive.

 

The novel deals deftly with class differences and the way having enough or far too little molds children. It does a commendable job at showing the way tragedy can morph a confident and spirited child into a anxious mute, squelching any room for passion or flights of fancy. The only thing I want now is to know what became of these two young women after the book ended. I do so wish I could quote the final sentence, uttered in Petrona's voice...

 

My copy has so much highlighting noted as "beautiful" or that made me giggle at Chula's strong spirit, the highlights became useless. Fruit of the Drunken Tree broke my heart a hundred times and fully restored it almost every time. So good, though I've read it, I finished and immediately pre-ordered a hardback copy to keep for myself and read again.

 

magical realism:

2 : a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction (from Merriam Webster)

 

The book isn't being marketed, at least in its advanced review copy, as magical realism, and I don't really think it is. But since the story is told through the eyes of a child, and children live in their sometimes magical imaginations perhaps especially children raised in the Catholic religion, this broadly fits the category and would probably appeal to anyone who can immerse themselves fully in the world of a lusciously-written character on a page.

 

I received an advanced reader's copy of Fruit of the Drunken Tree from NetGalley and this is my honest review.

 

A few interesting Colombia/Author things:

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review 2018-01-13 23:10
Not a book -- an experience
Peach - Emma Glass

Nb: the quotes may be off a bit in punctuation etc. I went from memory.

 

Peach is a seemingly normal young woman. She's a "good girl" by her mother's estimation, a college student with a steady boyfriend who lives with her oddly sexual parents and her baby brother whom she adores. She's even a vegetarian. But the reader never meets that Peach. She meets Peach staggering home -- perseverating, incoherent, bloody, vomiting and in horrible pain.

This entire slim novel is present tense, stream-of-consciousness, and told to us by an extremely traumatized girl who sounds a lot like James Joyce (the author notes this herself at the end.) Joycean or no, it's a good portrayal of the way human brains deal with interpersonal trauma. Getting through the mundane "Get dressed, socks first...push swing door open, hear it swing shut -- swoosh", noticing the weather: "cold" -- detached from everything -- in complete survival mode, telling herself she will just "forget this" and move on.

 

I found her playing with sounds and repetitions of words interestingly poetic, though it's really just another way someone copes with an overloaded brain-body connection. It's much better than, say - muteness, for a book. and not unrealistic. The brain is a majestic thing that will do whatever it takes to get us through things nobody should have to live through.

 

"I want to say things but I don't know how to order the words. Sentences slither around my brain. Scattered words, scatterbrain, scattered semantics, scattered seeds..."

 

Peach denies herself any help - even medical, and we witness a young woman spiraling: instantly distant from her parents and boyfriend; uncomfortable with even the touch of her pet at times, then overwhelmed with love for these same beings she can't share her pain with. She lies to cover for her physical injuries; wishes she could tell her boyfriend Green, but can't get the words out; holds in bile, fakes having fun, tries to make her face look like it "should," goes through the motions of normal life while holding herself together literally and figuratively.

 
The damage doesn't end there. Her perpetrator, Lincoln, is not finished with Peach. He stalks her, professing his "love" in letters cut from tabloid papers. He feels completely entitled to come to her home, insist on his love for her, demand she not run away, remind her that he's watching, lingering outside her classes, barrage her with creepy letters and much worse. She starts to see him everywhere, but is this post-traumatic stress, or is he real? Peach imagines him as a greasy sausage, smells his putrid odor in the air, sees his greasy slime lingering in the air, on surfaces, windows and feels this greasy meaty mess invading her senses and body. She wonders if others can see what she sees, if her boyfriend hears her heart banging against her ribs?
 
She begins to see everyone as food stuffs (her very kind professor shakes his face, "showering the first row with splatters of custard" and proceeds to tell the class he's not "set yet." He is the only person who is sweet enough -- my word -- to notice she's in some sort of trouble, but she lets the opening slip past.) Her friend Sandy also notices something is wrong, but she's busy berating herself and wondering why he doesn't see her as she now does. She somaticizes her pain into an ever-distending stomach makes her instantly "fat" and never stops growing. She physically feels the sniggers of her classmates, she chokes on smells, she can't look at her teacher because he's "bright yellow and very shiny" custard. She's constantly being assaulted by her senses - another very real portrayal of trauma. Even the weather is constantly changing and unreliable.
 
Traumatic process is the entirety of this book, and it leaves the reader as discombobulated as the narrator. It's an extremely effective method to show how shock throws the mind into a complete tornado, despite outwardly being so "normal" that nobody else notices. Because she is acutely post-trauma, we are never sure how reliable this narrator is. We only have her word for what she is experiencing. This is especially true at the end of the novel. It feels like pure fantasy that Peach has devolved into, but since she's telling it, we know she believes it is true. And if it is, it's mighty macabre.
 
At first I didn't like the distance, then it just "clicked" -- oh, we're experiencing the same off-kilter perception/reality horror that happens to almost anyone who has just been shaken to their very core. Not everyone will have the same exact experience as Peach, but everyone will have their own unique experience. After I cottoned on to this, I was impressed with the way Emma Glass was able to sneak that past me. Lots of reviews have been unforgiving of this novel. I can see how it might seem contrived, but it feels very realistic to me, even if the events aren't "real" at all.
 
I'd imagine, if the novel had continued, what we'd see is some sort of eventual collapse, hospitalization and years of therapy. Maybe after all of that, we'd know what was real, but I doubt it, and frankly, I don't want to read all of that. This book is not really a book -- it's an experience.
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review 2018-01-12 20:31
A Memoir that maybe should have waited
The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir Reprint edition by Coates, Ta-Nehisi (2009) Paperback - Ta-Nehisi Coates
I had high expectations. Perhaps audio wasn't the way to "read" this. Perhaps I waited too long, after reading all of Coates' journalism and his beautiful Between the World and Me. It just didn't wow me the way I'd hoped. What it DID do is make me want him to wait a decade and write another memoir. Perhaps I'll come back to this after letting it digest, or perhaps I'll pick up the written word and read it properly someday.
 
Being a Baltimorean who lived in and knows the neighborhoods, it was easy to imagine everything he mentions. He's also very close to my age. Both of these things make it hard for me to understand why I wasn't more affected by this book.

 

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