Reviews: One big ol’ pile of ’em

I’m tossing several reviews together, like a reading salad. This saves your inbox (or web visit) the agony of separate, multiple posts. It’s out of love. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Resuming formal tracking of my reading has had the unfortunate side effect of inspiring me to read more. I KNOW.  Awful. My determination to fill this journal is a 2018 goal.

Because it SMELLS LIKE VICTORY!

 

Here are the first few I’ve recorded:

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Raven Books; 1st edition (2017)
  • Purchased via Amazon.co.uk

Where did I hear about this book? I don’t know. In some UK publication, probably. In that case, why didn’t I just buy it there? Was it not out yet? Did I not have time to beg a freebie?

Does it matter? Why am I asking so many questions?

I love creepy gothic books as much as darkly psychological portraits of murderous psychopaths. Makes you wish you could spend a night in my spare bedroom, doesn’t it? Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t wake to find me looming over you.

BECAUSE YOU WOULDN’T WAKE.

I relish the dark and brooding. Heathcliff is my ideal romantic hero, which explains the irresistible attraction I have to a certain type of man. I pursue the troubled ones, the mentally unstable. I can save you, angry man with a violent past!

Alas. Sorry, no one can save you but yourself. Seven years of therapy taught me that. Come back once you’ve graduated from therapy, balanced with help of medication. But then, I may not like you as well, because you’d be normal and – GASP – possibly kind.

It’s not me, it’s you.

In literature as in life, the grim attracts me. A very dark stripe runs through my soul – or the empty space it should be, where no sound is heard save the sinister creaking of an empty rocking chair, the tell-tale beating of a disembodied heart. But then, a lot of people must be similarly afflicted, because books like this fly off the shelves. Which makes me normal. Which I resent.

I didn’t enjoy The Silent Companions at first. For at least the first quarter, it irritated me I’d paid across the pond shipping, and an inflated exchange rate, to get my grubbies on it. A haunted house, a woman who’s lost her mind, strange and shifting wooden figures that resemble people she’s known …

Yet, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Tossed to the side of my bed in a huff, I read a couple other books while it lay there, gathering dust. Then I decided dash it! I’ve paid for it, I’m going to give it a few more pages. And you know, I enjoyed it a lot more after letting it sit and stew. Still far from the best gothic I’ve read, it got one hell of a lot better.

The wooden figures – the “silent companions” of the title – are ghoulishly creepy. It’s their shifting around that does it. You know how in horror movies every time a main character works up the courage to jerk open a door, hearing a noise in the hallway, it’s guaranteed as soon as the door closes the monster/killer/icky thing will be RIGHT THERE? That, but in a surprising enough way it’s not as cliché as it could have been. Still a bit predictable, but done well enough.

The heroine develops more fully as a character through the last half of the book, enough that I’d stopped hoping for her swift death, just so the book would be over. It bothered me the plot seemed lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, done less gracefully. If I hadn’t just watched the Netflix exclusive series, I’d have been blissfully ignorant of the similarity. Purcell is no Margaret Atwood.

If you aren’t familiar with Atwood’s novel, at its center is a woman in a mental asylum. Charged with murder, her mental instability and a lack of firm evidence are enough to keep her locked up, the prospect of execution looming. In The Silent Companions, the main character is unable to speak. Interviewed on an ongoing basis by a man determined to get at the truth, she communicates her story in writing. In Alias Grace, Grace is able to speak, spinning tales like Scheherazade. Grace is completely unreliable as a narrator, the story much more suspenseful. And the ending?

HOLY HELL.

The Silent Companions isn’t the smoothest book. The dialogue tends toward the stilted. The attempted replication of a 19th century writing style comes off cheesily fake. As a lover of Victorian literature, I’m far less inclined to forgive missteps as huge as this.

It was, as you see often in reviews, “readable.” I finished it; that says a lot.

The ending irritated me. Again, picking it up so soon after my experience with the phenomenal TV adaptation of Alias Grace, it did not fare well. The power of Atwood’s novel, compared with the slow fizzle of The Silent Companions, did it no favors. I wonder if Purcell’s read Margaret Atwood’s book, if the similarities were intentional. If so, my opinion drops further.

I don’t hesitate throwing books aside. It’s ridiculous feeling you owe a writer anything. They owe you, the reader. It’s their job. They’ve produced a product, and you’ve paid for an anticipated experience. The writer needs to deliver as promised.

Not a ringing endorsement, I realize. But if you’re into gothics and aren’t looking for something either too heavy or terrifying, this may be it. And if you haven’t read Alias Grace, and aren’t an afficiando of Victorian literature.

Sorry, this just went even further South. The more I wrote, the less impressed I became. Go figure.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Catapult (October 3, 2017)

Holy lyrical and technical perfection. No wonder many lovers of hard-core literary fiction felt this short-listed novel should have won the Man Booker. I own a copy of the winner – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – but have yet to give it a proper read (as opposed to skimming pieces). Which deserved the win, I don’t know. All I do know, this one’s a beauty.

The trouble so many readers express is nothing much happens. It’s about perfection of writing, not a story that progresses in the traditional sense. A young girl in a remote English village goes missing. For years, residents search for her. Clues are tossed in occasionally, but they’re so few and far between the trail goes cold.

In place of a suspenseful plot, there are stories about everyday people, human experiences and the drama of everyday life in the space of time a tragedy becomes a distant memory. The parents of the girl are silhouettes on the edge. Hard details about the investigation aren’t well-defined.

If you’re looking for another Gone Girl, this isn’t your book. It’s a novel to be read slowly and savored, appreciated for the beauty of writing executed with perfection. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and put down without loss of continuity. I read it at a snail’s pace.

Every word is a treasure.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 11, 2017)

Another beauty, this one with a plot not fast-paced but progressive. And the lyricism, just breathtaking.

Drawn from the story of his great-aunt, native Mississippian Brad Watsons’s Miss Jane is about a woman born malformed, neither her female parts, digestive nor urinary systems intact or functioning normally. She could control neither her bowels nor bladder, her life made painfully difficult.

Participating in normal society required pre-planning, and the constant worry she’d have accidents. From childhood, she was ostracized. Always on the outside looking in, her yearning to be normal, to go to school and live the carefree life of a child was heartbreaking. Forced to wear a diaper, she starved herself to avoid humiliating accidents. She wasn’t always successful.

Eventually dropping out of school, she’d learned enough rudimentary basics to allow her to read and perform basic math functions. As she got older, the dawning realization she could never have a romantic relationship in the traditional sense was a slap in the face. A strong woman, she not only endured but made a satisfyingly full life for herself, not that she never regretted what she couldn’t have. It would have been abnormal not to.

Start to finish a beautiful book, it does have lagging moments. I’m not sure I’d edit them out, though. That’s the thing. I had to pull my way along for brief periods, but overall, very worth it.

Miss Jane has literary prize written all over it.

It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree

by AJ Jacobs

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 7, 2017)
  • Courtesy of AJ Jacobs, because friend.

I’ve put off talking about this book because I knew it would be both very personal and time-consuming. I wanted to go into the whole back story of how I’d gotten involved in AJ’s project from the beginning, our personal friendship, and the ways I’d supported him throughout.

Flying out to Manhattan for the Global Family Reunion – the event that is the crux of this book – right around the time my divorce was finalized, it was a defining experience. I hoped to throw in pictures, too, because I went to NY and it was cathartic.

Oh, what the hell. Here are some of the pictures.

 

9/11 Museum at Ground Zero, Manhattan – a child stares in wonder.

 

I’ve known AJ at least a decade. His book The Know-it-All, about his experiences reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, helped bring me out of a deep depression following the loss of a soul-mated friend. Written in short bursts of his thoughts on specific entries, it was both funny and interesting enough to suit my all but non-existent attention span. Losing a friend similarly passionate in his devotion to books, I’d lost the will to and interest in reading. AJ brought me back.

I wrote a deeply personal review of The Know-it-All, which AJ had seen. Meaning to find and get into contact with me, he just never did. Years later, I wrote asking him for an interview following publication of another book. He knew me immediately, telling me then how much my review had moved him.

By the time he started his world genealogy project, we were friends who communicated regularly. An editor of Esquire magazine, a very big deal, he’s still a reference on my resume. I have his personal cell number. AJ is good people.

He described his vision: what if the world traced its roots and realized we’re all cousins. I was hooked. I joined Geni.com, the site virtually hosting the project. Genealogy began to consume me. The problem: once you start, it’s hard thinking about anything else.

My then-husband was furiously jealous of the amount of time it took up in my life, manifesting in hostility toward anything I tried sharing. The rift already there after decades of a terrible marriage, we’d be divorced by the time I attended the Global Family Reunion.

No, I don’t blame that on genealogy.

One World Trade Center.

Long story short, I followed AJ through what turned out to be a tortuously difficult project to get together this real-world family reunion, held in the summer of 2015. Though his friendliness never faltered, I could see the toll it took. He was still AJ, still kind and caring, frantically busy, but never so much he didn’t return my emails. This one nearly got away from him.

The book itself went months overdue. Intending to finish sometime around March of 2016, publication didn’t happen until November 2017.

The resulting book shows the strain. He doesn’t shy away from admitting he’d gotten in over his head, that pulling together a virtual campaign getting people to join Geni and dig into their roots enough to connect with him, plan an actual event with celebrities and publicity and all that goes with it, and gear up to write this book came dangerously close to breaking him. Normally a jovial writer with a sharp edge of self-denigrating sarcasm, the style of It’s All Relative comes off almost depressing.

This book doesn’t sound like AJ to me.

Ultimately, he drew together thousands who traced their ancestry far enough they realized he was right: we are all interconnected. Real life friendships were formed between total strangers of different races and ethnic origins, small celebrations were held around the world. People who couldn’t make the official reunion held their own.

Though it rained torrentially the day of the actual, mostly outdoor reunion, feet and chairs sinking into inches of mud, he pulled it off. Sister Sledge was there, singing “We Are Family”. I saw the celebrities backstage. That part was semi-amazing.

When I saw AJ that day, met him face to face, he was so distracted it didn’t register who I was. It didn’t help I was an unrecognizable drowned rat, caught in the deluge in Manhattan while tracking down a cab. By the time I caught up with him, the strain from all that had gone wrong had him so near distraught he shook my hand absently.

Leaving the event, I couldn’t find a taxi to take me the staggeringly expensive and long route back to Manhattan. In a shady area of Brooklyn, I wandered for hours. My feet were so sore from a poor choice in footwear – fashion over function – I walked the sidewalks barefoot, lost beyond hope. Returning to the venue, I tearfully asked for help. My phone dead more than an hour, the volunteers kindly ordered my taxi.

 

Times Square

Back at my hotel, I threw things around, irate I’d paid a tremendous amount of money flying out and staying in Manhattan just to have it turn into a virtual shit show. I tossed my backstage pass lanyard in the garbage. I couldn’t wait to leave New York City.

A few weeks later, once I’d cooled a bit but not completely, I fired off an email to AJ. It was a little ranty. And god, he was sorry. So sorry we set up a Skype call so he could talk to me, apologizing as face to face as technology allows.

Fences were mended.

I guess I did wind up writing a personal review about the book, after all. It was a life experience I won’t forget – not a completely great one, but all’s well that ends friendship intact.

 

So ends a quick summary of the first few books I’ve finished thus far in 2018. I’m close to finishing more. Hopefully I’ll have time to discuss those singly. We’ll see. Lots of other book-related thoughts, but time has been kicking my arse lately.

Either way, I’ll be back soon. Until then, happy January reading.

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