Fiction, What Shannon Read

In which I am annoyed by a book review

MyYearofRestandRelaxationWelp, after a four-month hiatus, here I am again. If anyone is reading, sorry about that.

And sorry for being sorry. Any time I visit a blog I haven’t read before and see that the most recent post contains an apology for lack of posts, I judge the writer as unreliable and pretty much never visit their blog again.

I truly hope there are more forgiving people out there than me.

Anywho, I’m back to say that I was appalled to read a NYRB book reivew by none other than the famous Joyce Carol Oates that was LARGELY SUMMARY. Well, summary supported by quotes.

Aren’t we all taught in third grade that in a book report you do not just summarize? No, nine-year-olds of America are required by their teachers to express original (if not unique or interesting) thoughts on what they have read.

JCO’s book review didn’t cut the mustard for either a book report or a review and I think I’m mostly annoyed because I just finished and loved the book she reviewed: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

The title of the book, while not entirely misleading, somewhat belies the drama and struggle within. In fact, when I heard that the author of the disturbing Eileen had a new book out, I was interested, but then I saw the title and passed it up. My thinking was, if the main character is resting and relaxing, where’s the drama? What’s in it for me as a reader?

Turns out, plenty. In truth, the unnamed narrator’s year of rest and relaxation is a drug-fueled attempt at blotting out her own consciousness. Which she seeks to escape for a number of reasons, including a pervading/overwhelming ennui that I can honestly really empathize with. Other issues in her life include the recent deaths of her parents and a shitty on-and-off boyfriend, Trevor. The plot line I most enjoyed is her antagonistic relationship with her so-called best friend Reva. There’re a lot of sardonic moments like this one:

“I took a Polaroid of [Reva] one night and stuck it into the frame of the mirror in the living room. Reva thought it was a loving gesture, but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence.”

LOL. That’s cold.

Several of the reviews of MYoRaR on Goodreads talk about how much the reviewer disliked the main character and how selfish she is. But I liked her. I got her ennui. I got that she was tired of the world such as it is. I could see why she was acting selfishly and I could even appreciate the dynamics in her relationship with Reva that led her to be straight up mean to her best friend. (I should add that there are redeeming moments for her, including attending Reva’s mother’s funeral because Reva wants her there.)

The narrator is a little bit spoiled brat and a little bit truth-teller. She’s honest enough to say what she wants and be who she wants and deal with her shit the way she feels best, even if that is via narcotic-induced stupor.

Also, in addition to empathizing with her feelings about life/the world, I think I’m less hard on her than the Goodreads reviewers because, in the end, she ventures back into the world. She doesn’t give up completely. She simply needed time to press the reset button. I can understand that. Though, does that say something about how I am willing to overlook misbehavior as long as one doesn’t give up on becoming a functional member of society? If she had, say, committed suicide in the end, would I have been less understanding and harder on her for giving up? I have a feeling that I would have been disappointed.

And speaking of being less judgmental, I’ll give Joyce Carol Oates a break here too. I can understand that JCO was probably on deadline with the Review and is probably also working on her next novel and probably also editing like 20 new short story compendiums. Sometimes, one only has the brain space for summary. Ask my third grade teacher.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

1I’m hesitant to say anything about I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by  Maryse Condé because I just don’t think I have anything interesting to say about it. It’s a wonderful book with a strong narrator.

Here’s the Goodreads plot summary:
At the age of seven, Tituba watched as her mother was hanged for daring to wound a plantation owner who tried to rape her. She was raised from then on by Mama Yaya, a gifted woman who shared with her the secrets of healing and magic. But it was Tituba’s love of the slave John Indian that led her from safety into slavery, and the bitter, vengeful religion practiced by the good citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Though protected by the spirits, Tituba could not escape the lies and accusations of that hysterical time. As history and fantasy merge, Maryse Conde, acclaimed author of TREE OF LIFE and SEGU, creates the richly imagined life of a fascinating woman.

And my (somewhat disjointed) thoughts:
The book asks several important questions, which had me ruminating as I read, including, what does it mean to be a witch? Is being a witch necessarily bad?

In this story, Tituba is a witch in the sense that she practices healing rituals and talks to the dead. But she maintains the validity of these time-honored traditions and feels they aren’t harmful, though she’s constantly challenged by white men and their fear of them (and her).

I love that she talks to her dead mother and grandmother, drawing strength and seeking advice from them. There’s a certain comfort to knowing your loved ones are just beyond the veil, watching and supporting you.

I also liked Tituba’s take on sex. At one point she says to her Massachusetts owner’s wife, who asks her not to speak of sex, does it not bring forth new life? (I’m paraphrasing.) And throughout the book, she connects with the men in her life through her body, and seems to need them physically as much as she craves their love.

At the same time, Tituba sees that men and women face different consequences for their carnal attachments, especially when she meets adulterer Hester in prison. Hester’s lover is walking around free while Hester is imprisoned and pregnant with his child, proving Tituba’s point that “Life is too kind to men, whatever their color.”

So there are some feminist issues taken head-on throughout book. And Condé’s prose is dense with meaning, though totally readable—it pushed me along through the story quite quickly.

This book just has so much to dig into, I don’t feel I can write a blog post that does it justice. But I do strongly recommend it. I’m still thinking about it days later and I’m sure I’ll read it again at some point. I liked it that much.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Perfect Nanny

38330854I love books about nannies so, despite the fact that The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is billed as this year’s Gone Girl*, I picked it up at the library. I had to put it on hold though because when I went in hoping to grab a copy on the fly, there were two other women who’d gotten there just ahead of me and were asking for it. So, get ready for some movie options. This thing is popular.

My first impression was that it’s much better written than I expected. And, to my enjoyment, it’s set in Paris.

The story is about a couple, Myriam and Paul who hire a nanny, Louise, to look after their children when Myriam returns to work. Bedraggled Myriam feels driven a bit mad by motherhood and the care of two small children, expressing feelings with which I imagine many mothers out there will sympathize. I know I did.

Nanny Louise enters their lives and she’s an odd bird but an excellent nanny who loves the children and cleans obsessively. Of course, lurking just below the surface, is the crazy. We get a lot of Louise’s very sad background. She had a verbally abusive husband who died and left her with debt and a daughter, Stephanie, who Louise neglected in favor of the children she care for as a nanny.

While the story goes on, we meet some various members of the different French classes and hear what they have to say about their station and others’. That’s a background conversation, however, which I appreciated. I was in it for the murder.

Now, we’ve already read the end of the story at the beginning. The climax is in the first scene and we spend the rest of the book figuring out what led to the tragedy. It’s not a plot trajectory I usually like. I want the action to build to a rollicking apex. But Slimani’s tight prose and knack for getting inside her characters’ heads lured me right along from the start. Also, when tragedy happens, aren’t our first questions “why?” and “how?”

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this one and read it in a single day.

*I know this is good marketing. I’m just getting tired of it.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Heather, the Totality & Uncommon Type

Book covers: Heather, in Totality and Uncommon TypeI felt moved to write about these books in comparison to one another, I think because I read one after the other.

And maybe because I felt they somehow fit into the same reading mood. Do you know what I mean?*

Also, full disclosure, I did not make it through Uncommon Type.

Anyway, Heather, the Totality is a novella by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men, one of my all-time favorite shows) and Uncommon Type: Some Stories is by Tom Hanks (yep, that Tom Hanks).

I didn’t have any expectations going into Heather, the Totality, and, in spite of a lot of telling and very little showing, I found myself swept along in the narrative of the relationships between the three main characters, Karen and Mark Breakstone and their beloved daughter Heather.

There’s also a compelling concurrent story about Bobby, an ex-con who grew up with an abusive, drug-addicted mother and all the terrible consequences that entails. The two narratives build and come crashing together toward the end in a very satisfying, I thought, climax.

Image of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail

The voice in the first story of Uncommon Type is the voice of NY152 for me.

And then I started Uncommon Type. The stories were extremely bland. I didn’t expect either of of these books to really plumb the depths of human emotion, but I think Heather, the Totality got closer.

And I realize I’m unfairly comparing a part of Hanks’ book to a whole, unrelated novella, but hey, maybe write a book that makes me want to read the whole thing…

Anyway, there is a grit and realness in Heather that I think Hanks comes way shy of in his stories and after reading Weiner’s book, they seemed…cute, for lack of a better word.

For one, all of Hanks’ stories feature a typewriter (usually in a small way). And there are illustrations of typewriters at the beginning of each one. Knowing that Hanks is a big typewriter collector, I like that his first book centered on that (again, kind of cute) theme.

But his stories reminded me of both the characters he’s played and his general media personality: likeable, fairly interesting, moving at times but not necessarily gritty (I’m sure someone reading this could come back with an example of gritty Tom Hanks, but I’m just speaking generally here). For example, here’s how he handled one instance of sex in the first story of Uncommon Type called “Three Exhausting Weeks”:

“As soon as Steve’s car was out of the driveway, Anna took my hand, leading me to the backyard. She put cushions down on the soft grass and we lay there, kissing, then, well, you know, putting my capabilities to the test.” 

The last phrase is a reference to the same phrase used earlier in the story but applied to something non-sexual, and so, it’s cute.

The next story, which includes memories of a soldier in WWII, does have some battle scene descriptions that are somewhat violent and ugly. But still, the story is more of a nostalgic reflection rather than an actual description of what going to war and recovering from it are actually like. And that’s honestly where I gave up on this book. I paged through some of the other stories, saw that they were equally superficial, and moved on with my life.

Meanwhile, in Heather, in Totality:

“The night Mark and Karen finally undressed before each other, he stared at her as she got up to get a robe and go to the bathroom. It was a bright moonlit night and her nipples were almost purple in the blue air, her skin so milky, her thighs so full and ankles so narrow. He thought he would never get tired of having sex with her and he took that thought very seriously and knew they would marry.”

So, not necessarily gritty per se, but we get real intimate with the Breakstones and their desires.

I will say, though, that Hanks made some astute observations about very specific personality traits. Again, in “Three Exhausting Weeks”:

“I am one of those lazy-butt loners who can poke my way through a day and never feel a second has been wasted. In fact, as soon as I sold my mom’s house and parked the money into investments, I walked away from my fake business and settled into the Best Life Imaginable. Give me a few loads of laundry to do and a hockey game on the NHL channel and I’m good for an entire afternoon.”

He’s pretty much describing me.

But in the end, I enjoyed Heather, in Totality more because it gave me a window into some complicated relationships that, on the outside, appeared mundane, and the story continually built toward a dark ending. I like dark endings.

Conversely, the subtitle of Hanks’ book “Some Stories,” is completely apt as the stories were delivered (and received by me) with a sort of nonchalance: “Huh, how about that?”

* I feel super chuffed to have just discovered that one of my favorite reviewers did the same thing.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Rosemary’s Baby

Cover of Rosemary's BabyRosemary’s Baby…or, You Should Have Listened to Hutch…

Just finished this one last night and I was surprised that it didn’t creep me out that much. I haven’t seen the movie (or the mini-series advertised on the book), so all I had going in was a general knowledge of the storyline. Everything below refers to the book even though I’ve grabbed images from the movie to illustrate.

The story is about Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who move into a historic New York City apartment building called The Bramford. Several famous actors live there. Guy is an actor as well. A good friend, Hutch, warns them about the history of The Bramford, which has been host to a large number of suicides and freak accidents, and some historic weirdos, like the Trench sisters, who were cannibals.

So, fair warning, Woodhouses.

Intrusive neighbors, jerky husband

Mia Farrow with roses

Roses from Guy because he’s awful and sometimes realizes it.

After the couple moves in, suspense starts to build in the form of irritatingly nosey next door neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet, who are always up in their business. An an introvert, this rankled me beyond belief. Even my closest neighbors aren’t as all-up-ons as these people. (This is why I will never be murdered by a neighbor or give birth to Satan’s baby.) The Castavets are always popping by and covering their nosiness with offers of help or worming their way into the apartment in some other way. Rosemary is too nice to stand up to them, even when she’s irritated.

Otherwise, Rosemary seems like a nice person with a good head on her shoulders. She spends her days redecorating the apartment and shopping and cooking Guy dinner. The couple have regular sex and seem to genuinely love each other.

That is until Guy goes through a combo bout of introspection and petulance, which he seems prone to. He’s like a moody teenager, that one. Rosemary just seems to chalk it up to his being an actor.

Happy times…?

Mia Farrow: Rosemary's Baby

Sweet Rosemary with her Vidal Sassoon haircut

When he lands a great part  in a Broadway play (in a really terrible way), things start to go south quickly. Rosemary gets pregnant and is happy about that, but is struggling with the fact that Guy actually raped her while she was supposedly passed out from drinking too much. Also, on the night in question, she had a weird half-waking dream where she saw her naked neighbors and heard chanting while, she supposed at the time, she was having sex with Guy. So there was that.

Rosemary’s pregnancy causes extreme pain and she’s pretty much housebound. She’s coerced into changing to a Castavet-recommended doctor who doesn’t treat her pain. Guy becomes even more distant. And nice Rosemary, who’s become even more weary of the Castavets, takes steps to refuse their intrusions…

This blows up in her face because, as we all know, she’s actually carrying Satan’s baby and Guy (that asswipe) has promised that baby to the Castavets and the rest of the Satan Squad in exchange for his Broadway part.

Things I liked

Tshirt that reads: All of Them Witches

The title of the book Hutch wills to Rosemary; I love that StrangeLoveTees (etsy) turned this into a tshirt.

Rosemary: She may not be able to stand up to her neighbors, but I liked her anyway. The book talks about her past growing up in Omaha. She’s estranged from her Catholic family because she’s married a Protestant and dared to leave the family fold, in which her siblings are still enmeshed as they have 18 babies a piece back in Nebraska. I just found this backstory all very relatable even though it’s an obvious plot device. There’re no doting grandparents (including on Guy’s side), so there’s more room for the Castavets to move in.

Terri and Hutch: The deaths of Terri and Hutch, one an omen, one a major plot point, both contributed to raising the UH-OH level in their own ways. I thought the build-up throughout the book was delicious. As readers, we know something horrible is going to happen, so Rosemary’s household chores, juxtaposed with brief instances of terror, lends to the overall creep factor of the story as it builds to the end.

Things I didn’t like

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby

Do it, Mia! (She won’t.)

The last scene: I enjoyed the ride pretty much right up until the little demon baby is born. When Rosemary finally starts standing up to everyone in the Satan Squad, including and especially Guy and the Castavets, it’s refreshing. She sneaks in to the Castavets’ apartment, where little baby Satan is being looked after, with a knife, intending to kill it. But in the end, little Rosemary is charmed by her demon baby and, we are to assume, takes on the role of mothering it.

It’s not just the conclusion that bothers me, though that’s annoying enough. The whole scene is kind of a mess. There’s lots of shouting and Hailing Satan, and it’s all very corny. It’s supposed to be creepy, the way Rosemary suddenly takes to her demon baby. But because it happens so quickly, and amidst the ridiculous hollering and hailing, I felt it was just lame, and maybe a good excuse for a sequel (which Ira Levin wrote, I’m sorry to say).

Did anyone see the NBC mini-series? Should I watch it?

 

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Bad Marie

Bad MarieI finished Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky over the weekend. It was delightful, I must say. I was engaged from the very start because the novel begins with the line, “Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work.”

I love an anti-hero who drinks. And Marie is one of those anti-heroes I can get behind in general.

Here’s the plot synopsis from Goodreads:

Bad Marie is the story of Marie, tall, voluptuous, beautiful, thirty years old, and fresh from six years in prison for being an accessory to murder and armed robbery. The only job Marie can get on the outside is as a nanny for her childhood friend Ellen Kendall, an upwardly mobile Manhattan executive whose mother employed Marie’s mother as a housekeeper. After Marie moves in with Ellen, Ellen’s angelic baby Caitlin, and Ellen’s husband, a very attractive French novelist named Benoit Doniel, things get complicated, and almost before she knows what she’s doing, Marie has absconded to Paris with both Caitlin and Benoit Doniel. On the run and out of her depth, Marie will travel to distant shores and experience the highs and lows of foreign culture, lawless living, and motherhood as she figures out how to be an adult; how deeply she can love; and what it truly means to be “bad.”

Oh, the irony

Image result for being bad memeI don’t know if, as a reader, I discovered what it truly means to be bad. There are more epic stories that explore that question much more thoroughly (ahem). But Marie is certainly not a great person as a whole. She’s selfish and self-absorbed and she views her interactions with other people always with an eye toward what they can do (or have done) for her. Or what they’ve done to her in the past, e.g., her mother promising to pick her up from jail and then not showing up.

There is great irony in her discovery that the object of her affection, Benoit Doniel, is kind of a clueless asshole. And that’s what makes the story for me. I liked watching Marie do bad things, like seduce her employer/friend’s husband, and then become indignant when said husband sleeps with another woman on her watch.

There’s a delicious moment when she realizes she has less respect for him, not only because he’s betrayed her, but because he slept with her in the first place:

Marie felt herself swell with love looking at him. Even after the French actress. She loved him. A little bit. Though she also understood that Benoît Doniel was rotten. And it was not just for sleeping with the French actress, but also because he had slept with her, Marie, the babysitter.

Parenthood isn’t for everyone

Image result for lord of the rings: the makingAnother instance of irony develops when Marie finds herself in charge of Caitlin, Ellen and Benoit Doniel’s little girl, with whom the runaway lovers absconded to Paris. As a baby-sitter, Marie always felt that Caitlin was in charge of her, reminding Marie when to feed her or put her down for a nap, telling Marie she needed a bath (baths are big in this book).

In Paris and Mexico, little Caitlin is no longer on home turf, unable to tell Marie how to take care of her. And eventually, Marie finds that aspects of real parenthood, like calming a toddler who’s having a tantrum and changing a blowout in a McDonald’s restroom, oppress her. She wants to be in for the penny, not for the pound, and is daunted by the full-time care of a small child.

How bad is bad?

Marie isn’t all bad, of course, and I think that’s Marcy Dermansky’s point (one of them, at least). Marie’s relationship with Caitlin is the thread that gives us a home base throughout the book. To remind us of that, they often have a sweet, touch base conversation that goes like this:

“Hi Caitlin,” Marie said.
“Hi Marie,” Caitlin said.
“Hi Kit Kat,” Marie said.
“Hi Marie,” Caitlin said.

Later, a famous actor they’ve hooked up with on a train to Nice tries to join in the conversation by saying hello:

“Hi,” the movie star said, amused, “hello,” but really he had nothing worth contributing to the conversation.

Lol.

I admire Marcy Dermansky’s ability to play out some major ironies in such a short novel and with somewhat plain prose. It makes me want to read her other books.

That said, the ending felt unresolved to me. It reached an emotional climax but I thought it lacked a final confrontation between Marie and Ellen. Ellen is an ever looming threat as Marie runs off with Benoit Doniel and Caitlin. In the end, I suppose we are to assume that Marie continues on her wayward path as long as she is able and eventually Ellen finds her in the end, and takes Caitlin home, and Marie goes back to jail.

But that is all left up to the reader’s imagination and I felt slightly cheated at the end.

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