Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

881655Blurb:

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…

Review:

If a book’s quality can be judged by my desire to write an alternative ending for it, thenThe Blind Assassin is a book of sterling quality. Because I want to write pages and pages where certain things that happen in this book simply don’t happen. I want so badly for it to end differently, yet I love it so much because of how it does end.

In The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood is exploring an epic subject that’s also a little bit dangerous: sisterhood. Is there a darker, more confounding type of relationship in the world? For all the complicated tragedies they’ve inspired, love stories are simple: they’re based on giving and taking—you give love, I take it; I give love, you take it; and we cross our fingers that the exchange is equal. But a sister story is based on sharing. Sisters share parents and friends, a home and often a room, arms, legs, and faces—though cruelly one will always be prettier than the other, and of course, desires and secrets.

One day the sharing must stop, however, and what will happen then? In The Blind Assassin tragedy happens, tragedy of the tricky, unassuming type that isn’t obviously tragic until it is. The narrator Iris presents her and her sister Laura’s tragedy in four windows. Frame One is a sci-fi story about a blind assassin, a mute priestess, and a destroyed kingdom; Frame Two is a published novel including Frame One’s sci-fi story recounted by two clandestine lovers; Frame Three features the memoirs of Iris in which she mostly recounts how she and Laura grew up and how The Blind Assassin (the novel in Frame Two) came to be published after Laura’s suicide; Frame Four discusses Iris’s present life as an old, regretful woman. It sounds like a complex hodgepodge, which it is, but each frame references the others to complete the whole wonderful tragic thing. Frame Four is tedious and occasionally weighs down the narrative, but it remains necessary regardless.

If sisterhood is about sharing, it is obvious from the beginning that something went very wrong in the sisterhood of Iris and Laura Chase. Where they once shared life, they no longer do, Laura having left Iris in the land of the living after her suicide at age 25. The entire book, four frames and all, explains, slowly and subtly, how the relationship between these two sisters splintered until it broke, utterly and completely.

Men are involved, of course. How could they not be, in the gilded but sequestered halls of the early 20th Century where a woman lacked any skills other than her ability to be married? Atwood is brilliant at showing how constrained and choiceless poor Laura and Iris are. Their only salvation from this constraint lies with each other, but jealousy and misunderstanding run deep and destructive between the sisters.

The title The Blind Assassin is interesting and multifunctional. There’s a character who is blind and assassin in the sci-fi tale, which eponymously endows Laura’s novel The Blind Assassin, and then there’s the actual novel, written by Margaret Atwood, which she has titled The Blind Assassin. Evidently it’s important. I think it means that we become assassins if we’re blind. If we choose or even simply fail to see what is happening around us, we become unintentional killers, maiming blindly yet temporarily. Our victims disappear but we will remain, alive and unfortunately restored to sight. The living, like Iris, are left, eyes wide open, forever gazing at the broken path behind them.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

46168Blurb:

The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first big novel, and immediately established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists, and one of the preeminent writers of his time. It is also the book that encapsulates the angst of the post-World War I generation, known as the Lost Generation. This poignantly beautiful story of a group of American and English expatriates in Paris on an excursion to Pamplona represents a dramatic step forward for Hemingway’s evolving style. Featuring Left Bank Paris in the 1920s and brutally realistic descriptions of bullfighting in Spain, the story is about the flamboyant Lady Brett Ashley and the hapless Jake Barnes. In an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions, this is the Lost Generation.

Review:

The Sun Also Rises: further evidence that you can hate a book’s plot, characters, and prose but still somehow like the book.

I was bored nearly every moment of reading this. Hemingway’s (in?)famous writing style is partially to blame. His sparse, almost juvenile prose is hollow, devoid of feeling or meaning. It’s irksome but also revelatory. Because you, the reader, become a partner in the creation of this story. You decide, using Hemingway’s elusive clues, why a character behaves a certain way. It’s quite empowering. Of course every book is an act of interpretation and creation on the part of the reader, but Hemingway does it better. He gives us so little that we are entirely at the reins of what this story means.

The writing style helps build the novel’s aimless narrative. Entire pages are devoted to traveling up one street, turning down another street, then another, stopping at a café, drinking, getting back in the car, going down one street, turning right, turning right again, then following that street to another café and another drink. But the aimlessness is truly finely planned. It captures the listlessness of the Lost Generation lifestyle while also showing that although meandering is the manner of transport, the people of this generation are going somewhere, it’s just not very clear where.

Finally there are some fantastic scenes in Pamplona, Spain at the annual San Fermin festival with the running of the bulls. Bullfighting and the fiestas are described very vividly, so much that you can see the beauty of them even if you disagree with them. Bullfighting is one of the novel’s best symbols. It’s this dangerous, even deadly activity that people do simply for fun. It seems ridiculous, downright idiotic but then you think of the wealthyish expat characters at the center of the novel. These people get drunk and have sex with each other and then ruin each other’s lives and for what? Fun, purportedly. Getting gored by a bull in the pursuit of fun is not so different from getting your heart broken while drinking copiously with your lover and her fiancée.

Apparently The Sun Also Rises is one of the first modernist works, one of the defining missives from the Lost Generation, and of course, it is Nobel Prize Winner Hemingway’s first novel, so there are three reasons to read it. But reasons schmeasons. I’d suggest you read it simply to be amazed at how much you can love it while simultaneously kinda hating it.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

752717Blurb:

The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories ’round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don’t know what she’s talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children’s uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.

Review:

Um, okay…

Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw is supposedly one of the most famous ghost stories there is, which is funny because most of the discussion on this book revolves around whether or not it’s even a ghost story! The story follows a possibly crazy but certainly unstable governess and her two angelic charges. The governess alleges seeing two ghosts on the estate and becomes convinced that the beautiful, perfect children are in communication with the ghosts.

Truly, it’s a very simple story, though Henry James’ impenetrable prose makes it much more difficult to decipher. I’m so glad that we no longer compliment writing for being good purely because the author uses words like portentous with aplomb. James prose obfuscates the actual story, which in almost any other case would be a serious flaw but here emphasizes the text’s ambiguity. Still, I do not pretend to enjoy reading 200 word long sentences.

It certainly is a fun little tale, but if you’re looking for ambiguous horror that rewards close and repeated readings, you can find better. My biggest complaint is how simplistic the possible readings are: either the governess is insane or she isn’t. For all the praise about its ambiguity, that seems quite black and white.

My favorite part is how children are depicted. Miles and Flora are described as cherubs, gorgeous children always eager to please with kind words, gentle hugs, and virtuosic music-making. But there’s an all too realistic darkness underlying them. Is their perfection a mere façade to impress adults as they surreptitiously misbehave? James captures something very terrifying and true about children. We like to think that we are operating on a higher mental level than them, that we are aware and they are unaware. But who can say what a child is thinking? For all the focus on the governess’s character, the two children are much more interesting and much more mysterious.

Overall, a nice horror story, though nothing exceptional.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan

 

9279177Blurb:

A modern love story told through a series of dictionary-style entries is a sequence of intimate windows into the large and small events that shape the course of a romantic relationship.

Review:

When I was young, callow, and lazy—a dangerous combination—I would start every essay I wrote with a definition purloined from my childhood dictionary. I did this partly because teachers demanded an attention-grapping opener and this was the easiest attention-grabbing opener available and partly because there’s nothing like a simple definition to condense an abstraction into something manageable and knowable.

I struggle to find a subject more abstract than love, which is why David Leviathan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is so remarkably clever. He’s elevated my silly schoolgirl stratagem to high art, following the thread of a relationship between two lovers not chronologically but alphabetically. Take, for instance, an entry under A:

awhile, adv.
I love the vagueness of words that involve time.

It took him awhile to come back—it could be a matter of minutes or hours, days or years.
It is easy for me to say it took me awhile to know. That is about as accurate as I can get. There were sneak previews of knowing, for sure. Instances that made me feel, oh, this could be right. But the moment I shifted from a hope that needed to be proven to a certainty that would be continually challenged? There’s no pinpointing that.

Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps it happened while I was asleep. Most likely, there’s no signal event. There’s just the steady accumulation ofawhile.

But it’s not all twee and rosy! There are also definitions that capture the harshness and even tediousness of love:

commonplace, adj.
It swings both ways, really.

I’ll see your hat on the table and I’ll feel such longing for you, even if you’re only in the other room. If I know you aren’t looking, I’ll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.

But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’ve forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.

I think this is the most wistful, realistic, and sweetest way to tell a love story. And it is a story, a poignant, fully-realized romance constructed in around fifty 100-wordish poetic drabbles. This experiment could have easily devolved into cute little quotes about love, but it has a narrative with genuine conflict between the two lovers, exposition, climax, even a faux-climax, and, most thankfully, a resolution.

I really enjoyed this for its prettily packaged truths, but I also enjoyed it for making me realize that even after millennia, we still have novel ways to tell love stories. Love can often seem so trite when written about, and that’s a shame because it’s probably the most important thing we can write about. Leviathan’s focus on individual words leads to a focus on moments, those quotidian occurrences that form the backbone of any relationship. Often in literature and film, a love story is constructed with pomp and circumstance; we rehash the same things: first dates, first kisses, “I love you”s and “I love you too”s, first arguments, moving in together, engagement, marriage, etc etc. But a relationship is better defined by the liminal moments, i.e., what happens in between the “I love you” and the “I love you too.” And Leviathan is masterful in depicting the in-between.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

18170549Blurb:

An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented young Yale graduate whose title essay captured the world’s attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation.

Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at theNew Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash.

As her family, friends, and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.

Even though she was just twenty-two when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that, like The Last Lecture, articulates the universal struggle that all of us face as we figure out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

Review:

I guess one of the coolest things about growing up is that you suddenly have tons of important things to say and people actually listen to you. At age 22 I feel like I’m on the cusp. Of what, I don’t know. To where, I don’t know either. But it’s this fantastic feeling, indescribable really; if I tried, I’d say it’s how you feel after you’ve stepped off a diving board but before you hit the water. Light in the air, but heavy with gravity.

Marina Keegan died at age 22. Her feet never hit the water. But she left behind more than a dozen essays and stories that capture that cuspy young adult feeling better than anything I’ve read before. Throughout The Opposite of Loneliness I had the wonderful privilege to see many of my current hopes and joys and anxieties recounted by a peer because for the first time, my generation is old enough to represent itself. No longer must we suffer the apocalyptic announcements of 50-year-old writers condemning us Millenials for our flightiness and inattention. We are on the cusp, we own the cusp, and we have the right to describe it.

And that’s what Marina does. Reading her essays is like a conversation, but instead of talking at you or about you, she talks with you. There’s the title essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, that highlights her unique ability to live a 22-year-old’s life but reflect upon it with the wisdom of a much older person:

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time…What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.

Other standout essays include Stability in Motion, an ode to the modern teenager’s sanctuary—her first car and all the memories made in it, and Song for the Special, an honest admission of the crushing jealousies that haunt a generation of kids told that they were better than normal, destined for awards, success, and celebrity.

Her short stories are even better. The Emerald City is a modern epistolary, a one-sided email chain from a young architect who has fallen from his cusp and finds himself in Iraq, consciously callow and outside his element, which makes his surprising fate even more devastating. Reading Aloud is very mature; it reminded me of an Alice Munro story called Wenlock Edge that I read last year in her collection Too Much Happiness. The masterpiece, however, is the first story Cold Pastoral. Claire, a college student, must decide how much to care when a not-quite-but-almost-boyfriend unexpectedly dies. It asks questions that belong to our generation, like what are the consequences of fleeting, are we or aren’t we relationships? And how can we forge meaningful connections if life is a constant attempt to act casual? In its scant 24 pages I was alternately charmed and horrified by how shockingly honest it was.

In the title essay Marina asks if we have a word for the opposite of loneliness. I say yes, yes we do, and it’s writers like her, writers who express what everyone else around their age is thinking, that give us that feeling, the opposite of loneliness.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

B18214414lurb:

Private investigator Cormoran Strike returns in a new mystery from Robert Galbraith, author of the #1 international bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling. When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days–as he has done before–and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home. But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives–meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced. When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before… A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, THE SILKWORM is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant, Robin Ellacott

Review:

The Silkworm is the tenth J.K. Rowling novel I’ve read. I believe that after ten often gargantuan novels I can make fairly accurate generalizations about her writing. And it saddens me to say that she keeps making the same mistakes.

Most glaring is her treatment of female characters. In the Cormoran Strike mystery series, we have another female character of much greater intrigue shunted to the side in favor of a male protagonist, aka Hermione Granger Syndrome. Robin is Strike’s young personal assistant who could definitely contribute to mystery solving but mostly answers phones, schedules appointments, makes coffee, and provokes male gazing. The thing is, Robin is much more fascinating to me than Strike! Robin is desperate, unsure, diffident but ambitious—she would have been a fabulous heroine for a detective series about a woman trying to break into a traditionally male profession. Strike, on the other hand, does not interest me as a protagonist: he’s arrogant and infallible (sorta reminds you of a character whose name rhymes with Barry Lotter, non?), meaning that whenever Strike eliminates a suspect from contention, I know him to be absolutely right, simply because J.K. Rowling writes Strike in a way that he is always right. For all of Rowling’s characterization skills, Strike is lacking. He has a cool backstory—missing leg, missing rockstar father—but none of it manifests itself in his psyche or quotidian actions. They are just things we know about him; like, oh hey, that’s Cormoran Strike, he lost his leg in Afghanistan and his dad is a famous guitarist.

In general, I find J.K. Rowling’s characterization maddeningly brilliant. She’s super into the physicality of her characters. In The Silkworm the first few chapters serve no other purpose than to introduce the story’s players. But we are told who these people are, with special emphasis on their attractiveness and one-word descriptors: he’s the ambitious one and she’s the daffy one. Rowling is an expert at character portraits but you can only know the characters on her unique terms; there’s no room for personal interpretation. It’s as if she is this master dollmaker. Each character is impeccably painted, you can admire the surface details for hours, but if you cracked the dolls open, they’d be hollow. Nothing murks beneath the detailed yet limited picture Rowling has painted us.

And yet, she’s a magnificent plotter, a skill really well-suited to the mystery genre which gives me hope for any subsequent installments (though I will perpetually groan about Strike’s usurpation of the protagonist role in lieu of Robin). She carefully charts her reveals and includes tons of clever but useless information to throw you off. I’m not the biggest fan of how she writes climaxes—this isn’t participatory mystery where you can solve alongside the detective; you must wait for Mind-Numbingly Boring Detective Genius Cormoran Strike to figure it out and share his conclusions with you—but the underlying plot structure is solid. I’d just love to see her combine this knack for plot with deepened characters and themes. Otherwise, it’s forgettable.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

18222740Blurb:

A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.

Review:

It’s probably not the best criticism to say that I found Bellweather Rhapsody, a book about a New York weekend music conference attended by hundreds of theatre kids, too theatrical, but there you go. A book about teens who specialize in drama was too dramatic for me.

Some people will love its dark and humorous tone, but for me author Kate Racculia tried to walk a line between funny and bleak, and she falls off this line a few too many times. The combination of these two disparate tones just doesn’t work because the characters don’t act reasonably. They Jekyll-and-Hyde their way through the story, oscillating from farcical to deadly solemn.

If the novel were a grim parody of high school arts programs and the desperate, star-seeking kids that populate them, I could accept this. But it takes itself too seriously at times, like it wants to be more than a silly pastiche of Glee and Agatha Christie. Again, that’s fine, but if it’s a serious book, I expect the characters to behave accordingly. And they don’t. Nobody’s actions make sense. A 14-year-old girl goes missing after being reported as having hanged herself, and her mother doesn’t care, the chaperones don’t care, the students don’t care, not even the police care! A 14-YEAR-OLD FLUTE PRODIGY IS MISSING. And I, the reader, am the only one who cares.

There’s also a whole romance sideplot that just fails on every level because the woman is completely unlikeable, yet she’s written as though we’re supposed to like her?

I understand that ending a sentence of criticism with a question mark isn’t exactly incisive opinion-sharing, but it’s difficult to say what didn’t work for me in Bellweather Rhapsody because it’s just so perplexing! It’s almost like the book wanted to be two books—either a lighthearted skewering of band geek culture and high schoolers jiving to be the Next Big Thing or a gloomy murder mystery/ghost story, where the ghosts are the characters’ secrets and haunted pasts. I would have liked both of these books if they were not bedmates in the confines of a single cover.

My somewhat confused conclusion? Bellweather Rhapsody is entertaining, though slightly whiplashy as well.

3 out of 5 stars