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Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

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Powell’s Picks of the Month 2019

Definitely the bookshop which I am most looking forward to visiting at some point, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has a wealth of wondrous website content.  They include frequent lists of books recommended by their booksellers, and have also collated their Picks of the Month for 2019 onto one handy page (see here).  I have scrolled through this list on many occasions, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to pick ten books from it which I am very much looking forward to reading.

 

1. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz 9781984818232
When Alexandra Witt joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, she’s hoping to put a painful past behind her. Then one of her creative writing assignments generates some disturbing responses from students. Before long, Alex is immersed in an investigation of the students atop the school’s social hierarchy — and their connection to something called the Darkroom. She soon inspires the girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance. But just as the movement is gaining momentum, Alex attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her — and what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.  Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt. As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal — and potentially fatal — consequences for everyone involved.  Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale of revenge and disruption shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long — and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.’

 

97805255413322. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…  A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?’

 

3. Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson Spires 9781501168000
‘Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous — from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide — while others are devastatingly poignant — a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.   Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.’

 

97800628628534. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century — nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person — Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her. But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark — with Bertha its most notable resident.  When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys. Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.  In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide.’

 

5. McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh 9780525522768
‘Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation — he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.’

 

97815011346166. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster — and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.  Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.   Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.  Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will — lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.’

 

7. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy 9780062342461
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.  Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.  What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world — they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.’

 

97803853526808. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
‘An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel from the best-selling author, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood — bonds that show their power in surprising ways.  Helen Clapp’s breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms. Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it’s perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.   That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen’s roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything — in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen’s struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie’s as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents. But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she’s permanently, tragically gone.  As Helen is drawn back into Charlie’s orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal — a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prize–winning discovery — she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.’

 

9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews 9781635572582
Eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and over a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.  While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women–all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in–have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?  Told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of a community wrestling with its own foundational myths. For readers of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking examines the consequences of religious fundamentalism and communal isolation, and it celebrates the strength of women claiming their own power to decide.’

 

978152476313810. Becoming by Michelle Obama
‘In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America — the first African American to serve in that role — she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.  In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books on the list have piqued your interest?  Are you one of those lucky people that has been to Powell’s already?

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‘The Runaways’ by Fatima Bhutto ****

Fatima Bhutto’s latest novel, The Runaways, comes with the tagline: ‘How far would you run to escape your life?’  The question is a pertinent one given its subject matter.  The novel follows three young adults from vastly different backgrounds who, for various reasons, decide to run away from their homes and join Islamic State.  Despite this bleak plot line, Mohammed Hanif has called the novel ‘big-hearted, [and] beautiful’, and Elif Shafak believes it to be ‘tender, powerful and richly embroidered’.

In The Runaways, Bhutto follows Anita, Monty, and Sunny.  Anita has grown up in dire 9780241346990poverty in Karachi’s biggest slum, and only after forming a friendship with her elderly neighbour does she realise that her future holds hope, and a way out of poverty.  Monty, also from Karachi, is from an incredibly wealthy family; his father owns ‘half of the city’, and expects a great deal from his son.  When  ‘beautiful and rebellious girl joins his school’, Monty is forced to make some difficult decisions about his own future.  Sunny’s father moved from India to Portsmouth in order to create a better life for his child.  Despite his father’s best efforts, Sunny feels as though he straddles two cultures, and does not really fit in.  When he reconnects with his ‘charismatic’ cousin, he too takes a different path to the one which his father had hoped.

From the outset, the scenery and settings are vivid and described in all their beauty and horror. The Runaways is highly atmospheric in consequence,  Bhutto writes, for instance: ‘On Netty Jetty, overlooking the mangroves… kites swarm the sky like a thick cover of clouds, waiting for lovers to throw chunks of meat to them – or if the lovers cannot afford the bloody parcels sold on the bridge, then small doughy balls of bread.’  Of Karachi, Bhutto writes: ‘Under the cover of darkness, before the floodlights bleed into dawn, a mynah bird, with its yellow bandit-beak and orange eyes cut through its coarse black plumage, sings’.  At this point, which comes at the very beginning of The Runaways, Anita has made her way to the airport.  The only things which she has in her possession are a passport, a red notebook, and a ‘small bag with a necessary change of clothing and some make-up.’  She yearns to leave Karachi behind forever, and feels as though she is making a real break for freedom.

Bhutto makes use of the third person perspective throughout, which allows her to follow each character effectively.  I liked the way in which their very different journeys to radical Islam were set out and spoken about.  Bhutto sets out that each of her protagonists is going through a crisis of a sort: Sunny is confused about his sexuality; Monty is ashamed by the way in which his wealthy parents act around other people; and Anita’s feels as though she is worth more than the restricted and restrictive life she lives in a tiny house with her mother and hustler of a brother.  Each of Bhutto’s protagonists is complex and humanised.  There is a build up of their backstories, as well as the influences in their present-day lives which lead them to travel to an Islamic State stronghold in Iraq.  The action, in which the three characters meet, takes place between Mosul and Nineveh.

The contemporaneous nature of the novel, which spans the period between 2014 and 2017, creates a kind of urgency.  Its themes and concerns are so relevant to us.  Bhutto explores, in a measured and unbiased manner, what could drive such young, impressionable people to join such a feared, and frankly terrifying, terrorist organisation.  I found her considered writing absorbing, and admired the way in which she gave context and understanding to the paths which her characters take.  The Runaways offers a great deal of food for thought, and is timely and relevant.

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‘Helpless’ by Barbara Gowdy ***

Helpless is the first book which I have read by Barbara Gowdy, a monthly author who was selected for the book group which I run on Goodreads.  Despite the fact that Gowdy is a bestselling author in her native Canada, and has written quite a few books (one of which was selected for the Man Booker longlist!), I had never heard of her before she was selected.  Of her work, Helpless – described as ‘a haunting, provocative story of heart-stopping suspense’, and called ‘a thumping thriller’ by The Independent – appealed to me the most, so I elected to read and review it.

Helpless follows a struggling single mother named Celia, who lives in a shabby 9780312427665top-floor apartment in downtown Toronto.  She has one daughter, a ‘beautiful’ nine-year-old named Rachel, who is the focus of the novel.  Rachel disappears on a hot summer evening during a blackout, taken to the house of a local repairman named Ron, and kept in a purpose-built bedroom in his basement.  Although Ron and Rachel have never met, he falsely convinces himself that she is being abused at home, and that she should be his responsibility, rather than her mother’s.  Ron’s feelings for Rachel are ‘at once tender, misguided and chillingly possessive.’

Helpless is an uncomfortable book to read almost from the very beginning.  In the first chapter, in which thirty seven-year-old Ron is introduced, lurking outside a school, she writes: ‘He waited.  Really young girls have never interested him.  Neither have girls whose faces and bodies are starting to show their adult contours.  His type is skinny, with olive to light brown skin and features that through some fineness of bone structure promise to remain delicate.’  He takes this journey to a local school around once a week, sitting in his van and watching the young girls who pass him.  On this occasion, he spies Rachel, and quickly becomes obsessed with her.  He begins to follow her everywhere.  Gowdy writes: ‘Everything about her thrilled him: her thin brown arms, the insectlike hinge of her elbows, her prancing step, the shapely bulb of her head, her small square shoulders bearing the burden of her backpack…’.

Gowdy appears to be hyper-aware of how both a mother and daughter in this situation would feel.  She writes the following when the police have become involved in the case: ‘Celia’s dread amplifies.  She doesn’t really think that Rachel is out in the open, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility, either.  Not knowing where she is turns every place, every house and garage and abandoned store, every trunk of every car and now every ditch and field, into a place she might be.’

The novel provides quite an involved character study of Celia.  Regardless of the depth which Gowdy went into, and the exploration of her past – her unplanned pregnancy at the age of twenty-one, and her mother’s death occurring just before Rachel was born – however, did not quite turn Celia into a believable protagonist.  Rather, she remained flat, and had very little agency.  I did not warm to Rachel either, who again felt two-dimensional.  The only character who came across as vaguely realistic was Ron.  His girlfriend, Nancy, serves a purpose in the storyline, protecting Ron from those who suspect him and the like, but I found her quite an irritating character.

The similarities which Jane Shilling in the Sunday Telegraph draws between Helpless and John Fowles’ The Collector were, I felt, relatively unfounded.  Yes, there are similarities in terms of the plot, but I found Helpless far less chilling and engaging.  The novel reminded me rather of Lolita in the feelings of discomfort which it produced in me, and the disgust which I felt towards its main male protagonist.  I was also reminded of Beth Gutcheon’s Still Missing, told in quite plain prose, which deals with the disappearance of a young boy, and his mother’s reactions.

The prose style of Helpless surprised me; it was largely nondescript and matter-of-fact, and I was not blown away by any of Gowdy’s descriptions or scene-building.  However, what did work well was the present tense which Gowdy employed; it enabled the novel to have an immediacy, an urgency.  There was a good level of pace, and a nice rhythm to the novel’s structure.  The storyline did not seem quite consistent, though, and I wasn’t satisfied with the book’s ending, as it seemed to finish rather abruptly.

In some ways, Helpless was interesting and absorbing, but I did find that it became bogged down with detail and drawn out after the first few chapters.  It lacked the impact which I would have expected from any book which deals with similar themes.  I was not entirely impressed with Helpless, and did not find it particularly satisfying.

After reading quite a few reviews by those familiar with the rest of the author’s work, however, it seems to be her least liked novel.  I would definitely like to pick up another book by Gowdy in future, in order to see how it compares.  Helpless does not feel like a wholly accomplished work for such a respected author to have written, particularly given that this was her seventh book.  Regardless, it does give the reader a lot to consider.

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