Reading Bingo: 2017

I was pondering the best way to do a 2017 wrap-up post when I saw this awesome bingo card over on Cleopatra Loves Books. She says anyone can join in, so here’s my list and I hope to see many other lists pop up in my Reader. ūüėÄ

Most of my 2017 reads fit into multiple categories so I had to mush them around a little, especially since I haven’t yet finished 50 books this year.

(Links lead to my reviews.)

Bingo!

 

A book with more than 500 pages

At 1,116 pages, It is the¬†longest book I read this year. Given how well my attempts to read The Stand have gone I didn’t expect to enjoy it. However, there were some excellent scary moments and the friendship between the kids was a heartwarming through-line.

A forgotten classic

This is the toughest square because no matter which book I pick someone will say:¬†I’ve never forgotten that one! I’ve listed She because it’s not usually the first Haggard book to come up in conversation.

A book that became a movie

Let the Right One In has two film adaptations: the Swedish original and an unnecessary remake. Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen either, they’re both solid even though the original better captures the book’s vibe. This book was more thoughtful and terrifying than expected and I plan to write a full review.

A book published this year

I started with NetGalley this year and read many more new releases than usual. I wasn’t sure which to pick, but¬†House of Names is the one that prompted me to sign up for NetGalley in the first place. I’m in the minority for rating it so highly, but it’s still the best ARC I’ve gotten.

A book with a number in the title

…There’s a number on the cover, does that count? Goodreads lists the title as “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” so I’m going with that. I haven’t gotten my review together yet but the title story (link) is superbly done.

A book written by someone under 30

Mary Shelley was 21 years old when she wrote Frankenstein which makes me feel old and unaccomplished. When I looked up the ages of authors for this square I also learned that Colson Whitehead wrote The Intuitionist at 30. Wow.

A book with non-human characters

Gulliver’s Travels has a whole cast of non-human characters. The tiny Lilliputians and giant Brobdingnagians are most memorable but there are also immortals and talking horses.

A funny book

Best satire ever! The Sellout may also be the first Man Booker Prize winner that didn’t remind me of homework. Beatty’s prose has the rhythm of great stand-up comedy and he even writes a joke in proper APA format. My quest to read all the Booker Prize winners is going to hit a snag next year when I read Lincoln in the Bardo¬†(which sounds awful).

A book by a female author

Daphne du Maurier has been one of my favorite authors since I first read Rebecca¬†in high school. Jamaica Inn felt a little campy in places but it was an excellent read on a stormy night. Why are so many books better when it’s raining?

A book with a mystery

I’m really enjoying the Miss Marple series and The Moving Finger is my current favorite. Each mystery has had a different narrator and occurred in a different place (all in small towns, though). I don’t often like books where a regular person solves mysteries in their immediate vicinity, but Miss Marple has travelled a bit and nicely sidestepped this particular pitfall.

A book with a one-word title

I don’t like this book. At all. However, it’s my most recent review and has a one-word title so… Artemis has a place here.

A book of short stories

I still don’t entirely know what to make of The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Ferris’ writing quality was quite varied, even within a single story, but there were a few I really enjoyed. Mostly I’m just excited to have finished one of his books. He’s one of those writers whose short fiction I much prefer to their novels.

FREE SQUARE

My review for The Gathering¬†was a lot of fun to write even though I didn’t finish the book. I will read another by Enright, but it’ll be a long long time before I return to this one.

A book set on a different continent

My Name Is Red takes place in Istanbul and the setting is a major part of the book—it becomes a character.

A book of non-fiction

I read so little non-fiction that Dead Wake¬†is my only option for this square. (Technically,¬†The Glass Castle¬†is also non-fiction since it’s an autobiography, but I’ve always understood “non-fiction” to be research-based with an index/bibliography at the back.)

The first book by a favorite author

This one is a little bit of a stretch because it’s the only Colson Whitehead book I’ve read. I don’t think I can say he’s a “favorite author” based on one book. That said,¬†The Intuitionist is a strong debut and he’s one of the few authors on my “to read more of” list for the year. I can see him becoming a favorite.

A book you heard about online

I haven’t reviewed The Lodger¬†yet, but when I do I’ll link to FictionFan’s blog because I only picked it up after she named it the Best Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller.

A best-selling book

Sometimes I worry I don’t pick enough popular books so I read¬†Big Little Lies¬†to be cool.

A book based on a true story

I’m not saying The Glass Castle¬†isn’t strictly true by putting it in this category. Saying it’s “based on” a true story doesn’t mean it isn’t a true story—just that it has been balanced and curated to craft a linear “plot” and “characters” for the reader to follow.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile

My copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring was purchased at a book sale for $1.00 almost 15 years ago. While I heard good things about it, I thought it was going to be much drier and more like a history book. It sat on the shelf until I read New Boy from NetGalley. Surprisingly, many of the things I disliked in New Boy were on display here though to a lesser degree.

A book your friend loves

The Shape of Water was recommended by a friend who was kind enough to let me keep it for the two years it took me to pick it up. My inability to read books on a deadline is why I’m not the best with challenges. Of course, this won’t dissuade me from signing up for challenges in 2018.

A book that scares you

Not conventionally scary, but the book with the greatest number of jump-scares (Stephen King’s¬†It) is filling the “500 pages +” square. This one gave me a shiver though because The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s lead character, Tom Ripley, has got a real dark side. His entitled air and willingness to take whatever he wants is chilling. Though a lot of the book is darkly funny, there are some brutal moments that are made more effective by how they slice through the humor.

A book that is more than 10 years old

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde¬†holds up well for something written in 1886. I plan to pull together a full review at some point. Maybe for next October…

The second book of a series

I read 80% of the second book of a series but I didn’t finish it because I just needed a refresher before book 3. Next time, I’ll read the whole book and complete this square.

A book with a blue cover

Scrolling through Goodreads, I realized I’ve read a number of blue-covered books this year. I picked¬†The Ballad of the Sad Caf√©¬†for this square because it’s almost entirely blue and it has blue content to match. (The Goodreads cover of Breathing Lessons has just as much blue, but that book made me see red.)

I hope everyone had a great year of books! I can’t say “see you in 2018” just yet though because I’ve got a few NetGalley reviews I need to post first. It would be great to start the new year fresh (and not behind)!

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‚ÄĒnot 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‚ÄĒCameron, Jade, and Russ‚ÄĒmust 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‚Äôs a little more interesting than average so The Dinner Party can‚Äôt 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.