mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

the secret history

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of those books that has consistently ended up on most-recommended and most-favorite lists for as many years as I’ve been paying attention to the book world online, and probably since it came out in 1992. I’ve passed it over at bookstores for years—it’s a chunkster so I was always intimidated—but several people were recently talking about it on Litsy and I noticed it on audio through my library app and decided to finally give it a shot. Edited from Goodreads:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

I enjoyed The Secret History overall. It kind of reminded me of A Separate Peace on steroids (or rather, cocaine? It’s set in the 1980s, after all). A bunch of students who are too intellectually big for their britches kill one of their classmates (not a spoiler, it’s the first paragraph). The rest of the novel you get to know these characters and the why and how is slowly unveiled, as well as how they met and the progression to the killing and its aftermath.

I’m not sure the blurb there is entirely accurate. I don’t recall the “charismatic” classics professor to be so influential, and it seemed to me that the group of friends weren’t so much “clever, eccentric misfits” as pretentious, haughty, elitist assholes. I will say that I totally believed that a group of early-twenty-somethings studying a lofty subject such as the Classics at an exclusive private college would fall into a mindset of superiority over their peers.

The kids are extremely obnoxious and unlikable. And maybe they forgot they’re KIDS, but I didn’t. They don’t drink beer; they drink mixed cocktails or whiskey neat. They don’t smoke pot; they do cocaine or other pills. They go on lavish vacations to Italy and stay in palaces. They go to a “cottage” to “get away” but it’s really a massive Victorian on the New England coast. There’s a lot of bullshit philosophical discussion and condescension among themselves. They’re not even all that interesting, personality-wise; in fact, they’re quite bland. Not that I need characters to be likable in what I read or watch, but these kids were just over the top! It was fascinating to see them dig themselves deeper into a dark situation of their own making, and seeing their over-the-top, imagined superiority unravel spectacularly. I wish the young woman character wasn’t just a love interest for the rest of the group, as is so often in ensembles like this.

While I did generally like it, I do think the book was too long—lots of scenes from the second half could have been cut. I’ve said it before that when the twist is revealed ahead of time (like here, in the first paragraph) and then the story is “told” from a perspective after the fact rather than “shown” in the moment, some of the suspense ends up lost on me. But it did have me curious, and Tartt’s writing is atmospheric and superb. She covers so many different aspects of friendship here, from how it feels to be accepted to the disintegration of a friendship, what you’d do and how far you’d go for a friend, I have The Goldfinch on my e-reader and I swear one day I’ll get to it! But thanks to The Secret HistoryGoldfinch has inched a little higher on my TBR.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: sorry to disrupt the peace and the leavers

Happy Monday! The great catching up on book posts continues this week starting with two books released this year that I listened to on audio featuring adopted protagonists:

Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is about a woman named Helen who travels back home to Milwaukee from New York City after learning her brother has committed suicide. She was adopted, and so was her brother (separately), but Helen has been estranged from her family for a while. At the time of her brother’s death, Helen’s in her early thirties, single, and is partially employed at a facility that cares for troubled young adults. She decides she alone can unravel the mystery of why he killed himself. Helen is an unreliable narrator and clearly has an unspecified mental illness, so bearing witness to her thoughts, erratic behavior, and questionable actions is an uncomfortable experience, and you experience the entire book inside her head. I didn’t have a problem with this, as the writing was great and I like novels that push me out of my comfort zone sometimes. There are many philosophical insights here on race, being an outsider, identity, finding where and with whom you belong, grief, loss, depression, and suicide, yet Cottrell crafts these heavy topics with an undeniable dark humor throughout. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I loved the premise of Lisa Ko’s The Leavers and find it extra important right now, with the current state of demonizing immigrants in the United States—an immigrant mother disappears (death? kidnapped? deportation? doesn’t matter), what happens to her American-born son? In The Leavers, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Peilan mysteriously never returns home from work one day. Her young son Deming is adopted by a white family and renamed Daniel. Daniel grows up facing his own demons, dealing with the pain of feeling abandoned, not belonging (race and adoption), and a gambling addiction. There was more to the book than I was expecting, with shifting narratives and locales. Although I think this one is too long, and I personally didn’t feel a deep connection to the characters, The Leavers is still a good book worthy of a read and sure to spark lots of discussion. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: life in parts, wishful drinking, i know i am

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are three more memoirs by funny people!

Bryan Cranston‘s A Life in Parts shows that he’s much more than his roles Walter White from Breaking Bad or Hal from Malcolm in the Middle. He does cover his time playing these parts, and I loved the behind-the-scenes glimpse at these shows, but I think I might have enjoyed his ruminations on the craft of acting even better. Cranston has many memorable stories in this memoir, formatted as different “parts” he’s embodied in his life: as a son, brother, husband, father, employee, and finally actor. It’s not the deepest, most revelatory memoir ever, but it is equally funny, touching, sad, and interesting. It’s specially good on audio with Cranston himself narrating. [Listened to audiobook in December 2016.]

I had Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking in my iBooks app for a few months when she died last December. I decided (a couple months later) that it was time to finally get to it—and I read almost the whole thing while standing in line for a concert. Wishful Drinking was a fun, quick read! It rambles and goes off on tangents at times (reading like her HBO special on which the book is based, I suppose), and I think I was expecting more depth and reflection regarding her mental health and addictions. But I did enjoy this irreverent, funny collection of anecdotal pieces from a Hollywood lifer. I’m sure this is way better on audio! [Read ebook in February 2017.]

Samantha Bee’s I Know I Am, But What Are You is hilarious! And delightful, snarky, relatable, a little raunchy, and everything I could ever hope for from a Samantha Bee memoir. I loved the audio—I was laughing and looking like a fool anytime I listened out in public. It’s not inspirational like Amy Poehler or Tina Fey’s memoirs, if that’s what you’re into. This is purely autobiographical full of meandering musings about her own life and times. I Know I Am was published in 2010; I hope she writes another one in the future! [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: born a crime, you can’t touch my hair, and awkward thoughts

This year I read three wonderful new memoirs by comedians that are not to be missed:

My only regret with reading Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir Born a Crime is that I didn’t have it on audio. I really enjoyed this book, especially his thoughts on the power of language and the ramifications of apartheid on the ground level. Noah was raised by his single black mother in apartheid South Africa, only seeing his white Swiss father sparingly throughout his childhood and then not at all for many years. His stories are at times hilarious, touching, and harrowing, and throughout the book he expertly balances gravity and humor. His mother is AMAZING. [Read ebook in January 2017.]

I want Phoebe Robinson to be my friend the way Phoebe wants Michelle Obama to be her friend. I want Phoebe, Michelle, and I to all be friends. I loved this book and it was well worth the wait for audio (read by the author). You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of hilarious, poignant, and sharp essays that tackle race, growing up, gender, pop culture, and more. The relentless pop culture references and her own unique vernacular can get somewhat tiresome, but I think it probably still works better on audio than read on paper. The chapters about hair (of course), the letter to the future female POTUS, and her letters to her niece were the best for me. The guest entries from Jessica Williams and John Hodgman were brilliant too. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

To be honest, all I knew of W. Kamau Bell before reading The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell was his name and that he is a comedian; I had never heard any of his comedy or shows. But that didn’t matter because I loved this book! It’s full of funny, observant, interesting, even moving essays on his work, his interracial marriage and raising mixed-race daughters, race, being an ally to women and LGBTQ+ in show business and life, and more. There were things I related to (being a lazy kid, getting excited about random things) and lots of things I learned from his life experience. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]