mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

mini-reviews: psycho, deviant, and the monster of florence

It’s almost Halloween! I love watching scary movies all month and reading spooky books to get me in the mood, even if I don’t actually do anything on the 31st (except, of course, have a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon 🙂 Here are three books on serial killers I listened to on audio this year:

I’ve been enjoying classics lately on audio, so I went with Robert Bloch’s seminal horror novel Psycho last March. Thanks to the iconic Hitchcock film, you all know the story: Woman skips town with a wad of cash from work, ends up at Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, whose secrets go deeper and are more upsetting than some stolen money. She’s never heard from again, and her boyfriend and sister go looking for her. Even though this was short and I knew the plot already, Psycho is still a tight, suspenseful read that has quite a bit of depth left out of the movie. Bloch was inspired by the capture of Ed Gein (see below). It’s very short—just over five hours on audio—but it packs an intense punch. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

I’m not sure why I decided to listen to Deviant by Harold Schechter last March/April… maybe I was homesick, as weird as that sounds! (Well, I’m always homesick.) Anyway, it popped up in my recommendations after I finished Psycho and I decided why not. The life of Ed Gein is truly one terrifying, disturbing nightmare. Gein was a low-profile farmhand in Plainfield, Wisconsin, often helping out neighbors as a babysitter or handyman, basically regarded as a harmless “town simpleton.” But beneath the innocuous facade was a depraved murderer, whose behavior and actions behind closed doors was unimaginably gruesome, each discovery unearthed in his farmhouse by authorities in 1957 more strange and chilling than the last. He was the inspiration for PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Silence of the Lambs, and more. As a sucker for true crime and Gein being serious lore in my home state of Wisconsin, this book kept me intrigued and captivated throughout. It is definitely NOT for the faint of heart; Norman Bates is positively quaint compared to Ed Gein. Fun fact: Gein spent the last years of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, just a couple miles from the street I grew up on! [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

***Both Psycho and Deviant are fascinating, gripping books, but I have to mention that the discussions of mental illness and the way the term transvestite is used in both books are dated and problematic. Deviant (1989) would be easy enough to edit and update, and anyway I’d even bet there are more recent books on Ed Gein.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston was recommended to me by one of my oldest, best friends back home in Madison last summer, and I was excited to see it was available on my library app! Author Douglas Preston discovered the olive grove in front of his family’s new Italian home was the location of one of Italy’s most notorious double-murders. Preston, with the help of a local investigator Mario Spezi, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, known simply as the Monster of Florence. They end up interviewing the man they believe may be the killer, but then end up the focus of a police investigation themselves. I liked the first part of the book better (the second half dragged somewhat, and was more about Preston than the murders), but it still reads like a suspense-thriller in the vein of Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Larson’s Devil in the White City. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

reading recap: august 2016

August was both a hectic and relaxing month. I moved to Singapore August 5, so while it was exciting and there were all sorts of new things to discover and people to meet, I also had a lot of downtime. It’s the first time I’ve not had a job (or full-time classes) since I was a teenager! It’s a new, unfamiliar situation. It’s nice, but I still have to remind myself to slow down, no need to rush through anything, enjoy this time to relax (because I do plan to have work here eventually). I hang out at the pool, draw, nap (!!!!), take walks, go to museums, work out, and read. In August, I was able to catch up on a couple of books I had started months ago but had to put down due to the move and read two new books:

august-reading

  • The Girls … Emma Cline
  • Dark Matter … Blake Crouch
  • One of Us: Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway … Åsne Seierstad
  • Ghettoside (audio) … Jill Leovy, read by Rebecca Lowman

One of Us was hands-down the best book of that month for me. It was stressful, exhausting read, but a vital piece of journalism about the horrific 2011 massacre in Norway. It’s gripping in the same way Columbine was for me, but I had to take a long break when I shipped it to Singapore. I also finished Ghettoside, my other non-fiction this month, after the move. It’s an important subject right now to be sure—the rampant murders of young black men in America—but there was just something lacking for me here. It focuses on gangs and police in LA, but doesn’t delve deep into history there much, and the majority of the narrative centers on the white police officers and detectives and their roles in the system instead of the black citizens’ stories… or they’re related through the white detectives’ work.

The two new books I read were pretty fun, quick reads. The Girls was inspired by the Manson murders, but flipping the viewpoint from a teenager named Evie invited into the cult rather than an outside view. The setting is intriguing and familiar if you know about the Manson Family already, but the story is not plot driven in the way you’d expect with this setting, and rather revolves more about Evie and her feelings. I liked it, but I can’t say it stood out to me very much… while Helter Skelter had me absolutely glued to the page and I ripped through it in two days. Non-fiction is more interesting to me on topics such as this, I guess. Dark Matter by and large does live up to its enormous hype. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining page turner, and beneath the science is a story about family and choices. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I have to admit I spotted the twist/surprise before it happened. Both The Girls and Dark Matter were good for the poolside!

Recap for September coming soon…
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the long walk

I can’t remember when I picked up The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)… it was a gift for my husband a while ago. He recently read it and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. Book club! 🙂 From Goodreads:

Every year, on the first day of May, one hundred teenage boys meet for an event known throughout the country as “The Long Walk.” Among this year’s chosen crop is sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty. He knows the rules: that warnings are issued if you fall under speed, stumble, sit down. That after three warnings… you get your ticket. And what happens then serves as a chilling reminder that there can be only one winner in the Walk—the one that survives…

What I thought would be a typical teen dystopia in the vein of The Hunger Games (never read, seen the movies) turned out to be something else entirely. Participation in the Long Walk is voluntary, and for much of the book that bothered me. I thought that it should be mandatory, a lottery or something (like in Hunger Games) but THEN I thought, no. This must be voluntary. Boys selected for the Long Walk against their will would protest—they’d flee the country and go into hiding, anything to get out of it. Citizens would be in an uproar (think the Vietnam draft… and that was for a war! This is just for “The Prize” at the end, anything the winner wants for the rest of his life). Oohh… is this book an allegory for military service?? Anyway, brilliant.

King makes subtle statements on adolescent masculinity in our culture, which I’ve noticed in other books of his. But in The Long Walk, it might be the first King book I’ve read without any supernatural elements. This makes the idea of a military state in the (near?) future, where we’d cheer 100 boys literally walking to their deaths frighteningly plausible. In The Long Walk, much of the “action” is cerebral—the internal dialogue and philosophical musings of Ray, mostly. But King is so talented at character development, he manages to keep a the repetitive, singular activity of walking compelling for almost 400 pages. Also in this one, there are no subplots or intersecting storylines. It’s just the Walk, from start to finish. There’s intense, relentless focus on the boys’ horrifying physical and mental breakdowns after hours and miles of walking without rest.

The Long Walk came out in 1979, but it still has many points relevant to today’s American culture—some shockingly so. I was especially struck by how similar the feel of the Long Walk event is to reality competition shows, in that people voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight competing to win (whatever), usually at their own or others’ expense (dignity), risk, and suffering. And how society is addicted to this kind of sick voyeurism.

Awesome book, I loved it! If you’re looking for a psychological thriller with some elements of horror and dystopia that will keep you thinking about it long after, check out The Long Walk. It would be a great warm-up for Halloween!

Read from August 23 to September 3, 2015.

jurassic park

Hold on to your butts… I just re-read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton! From Goodreads:

An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now, one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true. Creatures extinct for eons now roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them—for a price.

Until something goes wrong…

Thanks to the new Jurassic World movie coming out this summer, I was inspired to find my old copy at my parents’ house during a recent visit and give it a reread. When the original 1993 Jurassic Park film was released, my mother wouldn’t let me see it until I had read the book. Fair enough, but then she actually ended up reading the whole thing to me on a road trip from Wisconsin to Quebec and back! And then after the movie came out, maybe a year or so later, I decided to read it again and I distinctly remember being in the “little bedroom” at my grandparents’ house in Green Bay, which was at the front of the house on the first floor. I remember the compys making an impact on me—I read and imagined compys getting in through the window and biting my toes. Reading Jurassic Park again just now transported me back to those times; I love how books do that!

Anyway, there was a lot that had stuck with me (like Grant having a beard, the compys being more prominent in the book, the lengthy science-y scenes, and some deaths) but a lot that felt fresh again. The first quarter of the book is a lot of build up, but once the action starts it really takes off—thrilling and tough to put down! Some scenes were so exciting and suspenseful (the river, hatchery, and raptor nest, to name a few) I wonder why they weren’t included in the film. It was great to come across dialogue that made it to the film verbatim.

Of course, it’s impossible not to compare. As far as the characters go, they are all so much better in the film. Grant comes off as smarter in the movie than the book, if you can believe it (everyone kinda does…) Malcolm on film is iconic and has an appropriate attitude shift when the [ahem] hits the fan; Malcolm on paper is all snotty arrogance and an unfazed “just as I predicted” to every terrifying event right to the very end. The kids! They were THE WORST in the book. I remembered they were flipped for the movie (so that Lex is the older computer “hacker” and Tim is the younger sib), but I forgot how relentlessly annoying they both are in the book. Lex, ugh. I so badly wanted a raptor (or anything) to bite her. Jurassic Park is an awesome film for girls to watch—you get to see Ellie be a kick-ass brilliant feminist just as intelligent, strong, and vital to the story as the men and Lex basically saves the day at the end with her computer smarts.

I’m glad I went back and read the book again. It was perfect for summer, a lot of fun action and adventure, and brought back great memories. Because the world building and story is so incredible and memorable, I can overlook the characters being less than stellar in the book, especially when I have their endearing, fleshed-out film portrayals to enjoy.

Read from July 28 to August 2, 2015.

misery

This month, Care at Care’s Online Book Club hosted a readalong of Stephen King’s Misery. Edited from Goodreads:

Paul Sheldon, author of a bestselling series of historical romances, wakes up one winter day in a strange place to unspeakable pain (a dislocated pelvis, a crushed knee, two shattered legs) and to a bizarre greeting from the woman who saved his life: “I’m your number one fan!”

Annie Wilkes is a huge ex-nurse, handy with controlled substances and other instruments of abuse, including an ax and a blowtorch. A dangerous psychotic with a Romper Room sense of good and bad, fair and unfair, Annie Wilkes may be Stephen King’s most terrifying creation.

What a fun, creepy, genuinely scary story! I read a few of King’s books in high school, then two more a couple years ago (Under the Dome11/22/63), and couldn’t resist this readalong when I found it. Somehow I always forget how much I enjoy King’s books and writing. And of my limited experience with King, Misery is probably the freakiest of what I’ve read.

CGXdaIvUkAAZmMbI probably never thought to read this since I’ve seen the movie several times—it’s one of my favorite horror flicks. The cast is absolutely perfect. And while I still love the movie, the book was better (as books tend to be), and goes well beyond the terror found in the movie. I listened to Misery on audio while at work (it was a quiet week at the office) and squirmed and squealed through many parts that were particularly gruesome and sadistic. On audio, though, some of the Misery sections (where we’re reading Paul’s new story about Misery, the character in his romance series) were hard to follow and tiresome. I looked through those parts in my hardcover copy and they made much more sense on paper.

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What makes Misery special of King’s work is that it’s horror but without the supernatural—more of a psychological thriller. You read about dangerous, lethal psychopaths like Annie in the news all the time. King is a master at creating interesting, memorable characters, and Annie and Paul in Misery are no exception. More so, even, being basically the only two people in the entire story. King delves deeply into both of their psyches. Annie must rank right up there as one of the most strange and terrifying cockadoodie villains in literature. Awesome book!

Listened to audiobook from June 9 to 11, 2015.