Review: Girl in Snow

If I had not received this book free via NetGalley, I would not have finished it.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka sounds promising, but the reveal is badly paced with obvious red herrings. Even though the mystery lost my attention, there’s potential in Kukafka’s prose—it’s occasionally lyrical with unique imagery. Summary from Goodreads:

When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.

My biggest gripe is that too much time is spent on descriptions and redundant flashbacks. Because the book starts after Lucinda’s death and the sections are titled “Day One,” “Day Two,” and “Day Three,” most of the character-building moments happened before page one. Kukafka flashes back to the core moments of each relationship instead of relying on the strength of her present-day scenes. It’s not satisfying to be hit over the head with expository matter after carefully picking out the same information from well-crafted clues in an earlier scene.

The flashbacks aren’t the only distraction. There’s a curious fixation on gross/unsightly things. As an example, a description of Lee as “clean-shaven” is chased by a paragraph that describes the nicks around his mouth and how he must have looked with toilet-paper squares stuck to all his bloody cuts. There’s nothing wrong with describing a clean-shaven face this way—it’s certainly vivid—but no one is ever described without taking them down a few notches. The vast majority of characters have bad skin, smeary make-up, dripping sweat, pimples around their mouths and sprinkled across their sagging cleavage… Not even inanimate objects are safe! Misshapen beads are described as “tumorous.” I think this is all to contrast with Lucinda Hayes’s beauty, but it’s emphasized to the point of silliness. The more over-the-top descriptions are funny when I don’t think they’re meant to be.

This grossness reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I stopped reading Flynn’s book after a background character was described as having dried scrambled eggs in her hair. (I admit this is a weird place to draw the line.) In college, I ran across an article that suggested every character should have something ugly about them. This was to warn writers against creating physically ideal characters that are hard to relate to and hard to imagine. It’s easier to picture a crooked nose than a “perfect” nose—what does a perfect nose look like anyway? It’s a good piece of advice, but Kukafka takes it too far.

These two points are the kind of complaints that would have been less noticeable if the overall story had been more compelling. A taut mystery provides a lot of cover for errors in craftsmanship. Since I wasn’t particularly concerned about who killed Lucinda Hayes, the energy that should have gone into asking whodunnit all went to nitpicking.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5)
Taking on three points of view to solve a murder is ambitious and two of the characters (Cameron and Jade) have unique, if unlikeable, voices.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Dinner Party

I requested a collection of short stories by Joshua Ferris from NetGalley months ago (I’m running behind). I was familiar with Ferris from two of his earlier books: The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End. In both cases, the premise was sound but the main plot was rehashed repeatedly until I throttled the book and said: “I’ve got it. Can we move on with the story now?”

My experience with Ferris’s long fiction is what made me excited to read a collection of shorts. He’s a witty writer who goes for dark humor (which I like). My hope was that the limited page count would leave room for his originality but not his tendency to wax on. Yet most of the stories in The Dinner Party follow a similar arc despite the range of subjects.

Adding to the repetitive feel is that most of the stories examine a deeply-flawed or unhappy person and the same flaws keep cropping up: insecurity, self-loathing, dishonesty, and an inability to connect with others. The actual writing is quite good; whenever I thought I might set the book down permanently I’d run across a little gem. Ferris can put his finger on a thing/emotion exactly and make the reader feel it with surprising clarity.

The highlights for me are:

“The Dinner Party”
One couple waits on the arrival of another for a dinner party. The longer they wait, the more it seems like the other couple is staying away for their own reasons. Because it’s first, its hooks and twists are the most effective in the collection. It sets the tone for those that come after.
Here is “The Dinner Party” as originally published in The New Yorker, August 11, 2008.

“The Pilot”
An insecure writer is invited to a party thrown by a successful acquaintance. He wonders whether he was invited intentionally or accidentally and, to cope, he hides behind an alter ego and tells everyone that his pilot is almost finished. The tension that comes from his writhing insecurity and problematic drinking is skin-crawling. Come to think of it, most of this collection is uncomfortable so it stands to reason the best stories are those that nail discomfort most efficiently.
Here is “The Pilot” as originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010.

“More Abandon, or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope”
Points awarded for absurdity. “More Abandon” follows another self-loathing man, Joe Pope, as he leaves an embarrassing series of voicemails on a coworker’s phone. He then explores the empty offices in his building and does a little redecorating…

Overall: 3.5  Ferris can write and he’s a little more interesting than average so The Dinner Party can’t slip below a three even if the redundancy is tiring. Many of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker—which makes sense, they have that New Yorker vibe—and they’d be better if read months apart instead of in a collection where their similar themes and tones are obvious.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is misery porn. This isn’t an insult; it’s just a descriptor. Misery porn is a sub-genre of memoir built around the thesis: My childhood was worse than yours, but I’m going to be cavalier about it so you know how tough I am. Memoirists can paint their histories however they choose, but it’s near impossible for misery porn to not be a self-indulgent humble-brag: Look how independent I was; look how I persevered; would you have survived my obstacles? True to genre, The Glass Castle is a litany of obstacles in the form of abusive, neglectful parents and grinding poverty.

The Glass Castle opens as a three-year-old Jeannette Walls boils hotdogs for dinner and accidentally sets herself on fire. She’s taken to the hospital, but her father sneaks her out early to avoid paying. Walls writes herself as a rational, surprisingly well-spoken three-year-old. Some reviewers have questioned her memory—how accurately do you remember your time as a three-year-old?—but I won’t.

I don’t care whether Walls’s stories are strictly “true.” Memoirists can take some liberties. We all have stories that ring false to outsiders because they contain unlikely events or a turn of luck. But while some writers cushion their harder-to-believe stories, Walls leans into the absurdity of her childhood.

What does feel true about Walls’s well-spoken three-year-old (who grows into a well-spoken ten-year-old) is how the tenor of her stories changes over the years. When she’s young, she believes her parents when they cast their financial setbacks as adventures. It’s not until she’s a little older that a negative light develops and her stories focus on cold, hunger, and her inability to reason with her mother or father. Even if Walls embellished the language of her younger self, she successfully contrasts her former innocence with the person she became.

The Glass Castle is a hard book to read because her parents’ chief skill is finding new lows in selfishness and addiction. At the outset, her father, Rex Walls, seems a bigger villain than her mother: Surely the family would have money for food if Rex weren’t confiscating his wife’s checks on payday and drinking himself into a stupor. Later though, it’s clear that Rex isn’t the whole problem. Even when her mother stumbles into free money, she doesn’t put it towards food, clothing, or her children’s welfare:

We brought the ring home and showed it to Mom. She held it up to the light, then said we needed to have it appraised. The next day she took the Trailways bus to Bluefield. When she returned, she told us it was in fact a genuine two-carat diamond.
“So what’s it worth?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” Mom said.
“How come?”
“Because we’re not selling it.”
She was keeping it, she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.
“But Mom,” I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food.”
“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.” (186)

You’d think failing to feed her kids would be a blow to that same self-esteem… This scene was an especially hard read because when the kids find the ring, their only thoughts are to pay off the house and buy food—they aren’t looking for luxuries. They give the ring to the person they think will provide, but she’d rather wear it instead. The scene where the kids catch their mother sneaking food under a blanket while they go hungry about made me throw the book. When Walls says she’s hungry, she means it:

“We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” I said.
“You’re always so negative,” she said. “You remind me of my mother—criticize, criticize, criticize.”
“I’m not being negative,” I said. “I’m trying to be realistic.”
“I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances,” she said. “How come you never blame your father for anything? He’s no saint, you know.” (187)

And speaking of Walls’s father—
At one point the book shifts from simple memoir into something more voyeuristic and uncomfortable. After Bryan (Jeannette’s brother) is groped by their grandmother, Walls speculates about whether their father was sexually abused by his mother. She points to this as a likely reason for his drinking and discomfort around his family. I suspect Walls included this speculation because she didn’t want to depict her father as only an alcoholic, as the villain. However, I find myself suprisingly resentful of her willingness to spill one of his biggest secrets in a bid for sympathy—as if he wouldn’t deserve help or pity without a Legitimate Reason for his drinking. As if alcoholism isn’t a disease—something that Walls convincingly (and heartbreakingly) portrays elsewhere in the book.

Reading The Glass House is like being stuck next to a stranger on a train who insists on giving their whole life story even though you’ve just met them and didn’t sign on to play therapist. It’s easier to close a book than to change cars on a train but, ultimately, The Glass House made me wonder: Why was this book written? Do people need to learn and grow in a memoir for it to be a “good” book?—it’s not as though static people don’t exist. Is a series of repetitive anecdotes enough to make The Glass Castle a “good” book?

Overall: 2.7  (out of 5.0) Before you think this score is unduly harsh, remember that a 3.0 is average. 2.7 is only a touch below average. And, while Walls’s experiences may be unique, the book and presentation are average. My initial reaction was to give it a lower score, but I think Walls deserves credit for being so open/forthcoming (which can’t have been easy) and I’ve seen people call this story “helpful” online. It’s hard to be harsh on a memoir. I don’t want it to seem like I’m rating her personal story—I’m only rating the book.

Mini Reviews (Halloween Edition)

A lot of people ask me to recommend creepy books this time of year. I wasn’t able to do this until recently because I didn’t often read scary stuff. As a kid, I ran out of the room if a trailer for a horror movie came on TV, and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was almost too much to handle. (I’m pretty sure there was one with an evil ventriloquist’s dummy…) Reading nightmarish stuff the last few Octobers has been fun because this is a genre I’d previously neglected—I thought it would be all gore and jump scares—but it’s full of imaginative writing, memorable characters, and brilliant pacing. This is also the one genre where I almost don’t mind cheesy “and then everything was okay” happy endings because if the monster weren’t defeated at the end I might never sleep again. 😉

So here’s this year’s crop:

(Title links lead to Goodreads pages; this will be long enough without summaries!)

– – – – –

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Overall: 4.0 (of 5.0)
It’s a classic, but I’m not sure it’s aging well. The core story (creating the monster, some of the monster’s experiences, and the final showdown) are solid, but the connective tissue comprises middling philosophy and rampant sentimentality. Everyone in Dr. Frankenstein’s life (except the monster) is the absolute BEST: his friends are paragons of virtue, his cousin/wife-to-be is a shining beacon of goodliness, and his saintly mother dies with a smile lest she upset anyone with her grief. Dr. Frankenstein is a tedious narrator and his self-pity is trying. All his misery comes from his inability to treat his creature with a shred of decency, but what is he to do when the poor creature is just so…ugly?

His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. I tried to stifle these sensations; I thought that as I could not sympathize with him, I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow.” (81)

And check out this hyperbolic whinging after the creature exacts his revenge:

A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man. (112)

Dr. Frankenstein is worse off than anyone in history! Shelley’s use of “creature” here is great, though, since it shows (again) that the doc’s chief fault is a lack of empathy. The sections narrated by the creature are a welcome change of pace, but they soon become too long-winded (impressive for a being that just learned to speak). In a blessing to English teachers everywhere, the creature remains unnamed and students out themselves as not having read the book the instant they call him “Frankenstein.”

– – – – –

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)
The most surprising book of the month! I saw both film adaptations (the Swedish original and the American remake) circa 2010 and only remembered the basic plot. The book was much more expansive, with a larger cast, more vampires, and more gross-out moments. When I started reading, I didn’t pay as much attention to characters I thought would stay on the periphery (i.e., everyone outside Eli and Oskar’s immediate orbit). Far from being the filler characters they are in the movie, though, many of them have complete story arcs. Eventually, I figured this out and started paying more attention. Once I did, I was impressed.

Let the Right One In has got a little of everything. Lindqvist’s version of vampirism has its supernatural/fairy-tale elements alongside pseudo-sciency bits. Vampires can’t enter a room without being invited, even as the virus that creates them is described more like a medical condition. As in, modern people who catch the virus describe it in medical terms—it’s an old condition described in a new way. This makes for a suprisingly interesting mash-up, something I didn’t even know was missing from usual vampire fiction. There are vampires resigned to their fates, tragic ones, and truly disgusting ones; this range is unusual and leads to a deep and involving story. Be warned though: It’s pretty disgusting.

Note: The pedophilia angle (mostly in the first quarter of the book) was unexpected. If it was implied in the movie I either blocked it out or didn’t catch it. Eli’s relationship with Håkan is symbiotic in a bad way: She knows he’s attracted to children and he knows she’s a vampire. Their exchange of services is nauseating and clearly untenable. I mention this because it isn’t something you’d expect to encounter in a vampire book and it’s incredibly disturbing.

– – – – –

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Still reading…no score yet.
Part of familiarizing myself with a genre means I’ve got to spend time with the classics. I read some H.P. Lovecraft in high school, but his writing didn’t appeal to me. The stilted, old-fashioned language and the weirdness put me off. The King in Yellow has been cited as one of Lovecraft’s influences for the Necronomicon. I’m only halfway through this collection now. While the stories are good, they’re also deeply strange and skin-crawling.

With the exception of one story so far, this collection is structured around an assortment of characters finding the play “The King in Yellow” and going mad. Some are drawn to it, others try to avoid it, but no one can stop reading once they get started. The play itself is never outlined (not yet at least) so it exists mostly in its effect on the characters. Given that the same general plot is explored in each, I was expecting a lot of repetition, but there’s a good amount of variety in the characters so far. Somehow, it’s eerier that a variety of people are drawn to the play, including seemingly normal people. Since this is one of those books that has influenced many others, readers who are more familiar with horror might see these stories as rote and predictable (even I’ve called a couple endings), but they’re well-written and definitely provoke a shiver.

– – – – –

It by Stephen King

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0)
Full review here. TL;DR: Great book; great movie.

– – – – –

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I’m not posting a mini review since The Loney deserves a full one. I’ve read it twice now and can’t make up my mind about it. The brooding atmosphere that comes from two (two!) gothic mansions and a religious mania make it a claustrophobic read, but the warm relationship between the brothers adds some lightness—plus, they give the reader someone to cheer for. The pacing is brilliant but the ending… There’s just not enough information for me to sort it all out. There are a few ways to interpret it, but all open a plot hole. I read The Loney with a couple friends and everyone had a slightly different take on the ending, but no one’s theory answered all questions. There was a loose thread in each that unwound the whole thing. Frustratingly, not enough people have read this little gem, so online chatter is in short supply.

Therefore, I should give this book a high score so that many, many more people read it! But if any one of those people ask me to explain the ending I’ll be at a loss and look like an idiot… My hope is that in pulling quotes for a full review, I’ll figure out the ending. It’ll be like in college where I didn’t figure out my thesis statement until halfway through the paper.

– – – – –

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Still reading…no score yet.
I’m not sure why I thought this book would be creepy. I wanted something with a little sci-fi edge to round out the list. Don DeLillo’s unsettling White Noise is one of those books I had to read for class that turned out to be good. Though I own a couple other DeLillo books, I keep returning to White Noise. I do this sometimes—when I find a book I really like by an author, I’ll stall on their other works in case they aren’t as good. It’s so disappointing when a writer follows up a great book with a mediocre one!

Fear of death is a big theme of White Noise and, while it isn’t scary, the repeated refrain “Who will die first?” is the kind of thing that gets stuck in my head when I’m trying to sleep. Since Zero K digs into dying more directly, I expected the same kind of unsettling vibe. Though many reviews describe this book as funny, the cryogenic facility felt terrifyingly sterile to me. I thought this book was heading into some dark territory (hence its presence on my October list), but I put it down halfway through. I wasn’t feeling a connection to any of the characters and their ridiculously pretentious mode of speaking got to me.

99% of the reason I picked up this book is that I’ve been working on a series of stories about a cryogenic facility and wanted to check out the competition. DeLillo and I have gone completely different directions with our stories, which is really all I wanted from this book.

– – – – –

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0)
This is more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel, but Tom Ripley isn’t someone I’d ever want to meet. I didn’t link to Goodreads because this is a book that’s more fun the less you know about it; spoilers are tough to avoid for this one given its popularity. All you need to know is the barest outline: A wealthy man pays Tom to convince his son to return home. The son, Dickie Greenleaf, has been gallivanting around Europe and his father thinks Tom, a former schoolmate, can push him in a way that family can’t. Tom soon becomes enamored with Dickie’s way of life and doesn’t want to uphold his end of the bargain since it’ll upend the gravy train.

The Talented Mr. Ripley starts slow but builds to a fever pitch. The writing is clever and tight, there are numerous bits of dark humor, and details from the earliest chapters pay off at the climax. Tom’s internal monologue, bizarrely, is simultaneously over-confident and paranoid. It’s such a closely-written, internal portrayal of his mindset that it’s hard to see how this was ever adapted into a film. Even if you’ve seen the film, there’s plenty here for a more unfiltered view of the characters.

– – – – –

Happy Reading!