Review: An Untamed State



Review for “An Untamed State” by Roxane Gay

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book really touched me. After finishing it I lay awake for several hours, just thinking about the raw reality of it over and over.. Very few books have the power to do that to me, and Roxane Gay is a sensational writer that captures your emotions with her first novel.

It goes without mentioning that this was not an easy read. It’s one of those books that you read for a while, take a breather, and, if you can stomach it, you dive in and take another plunge. I read this book in about four sittings, partly to get the suspense over with and partly to just end it–the terror, the waiting, the feeling like you are stuck in a cage and can’t breathe. You are fully there with Mirielle as she is kidnapped by armed men in on a visit to her native Port-au-Prince and held captive for thirteen days. What takes place over those thirteen days are some of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever read. Mirielle is beaten, raped repeatedly, and tortured by her kidnappers after her wealthy father refuses to pay her ransom in some of the most cruelest ways imaginable. The disturbing content of this book could have easily allowed the author to venture down the “torture porn” route–lots of unnecessary, graphic details of violence, rape, and/or abuse that does nothing to develop character but only serves to shock an audience–but thankfully, Ms. Gay doesn’t go there. She does describe what happens to Mirielle in vivid detail at first but after that, manages to hint at specific incidents. I want to thank her for this, because without some kind of restraint on the part of the author I don’t think I would have been able to finish this book. 

Interspersed throughout Mirielle’s harrowing ordeal are flashbacks of Mirielle’s life with her family, her husband, and her career. At times the flashbacks were a wee bit long and unfocused, but, all in all, completely necessary for the story. Mirielle is a complex character, and the second half of the book deals with her life after the kidnapping. The writing here is a lot sharper, which I liked. Mirielle’s struggle to regain some semblance of normalcy is realistic and honest, and Gay doesn’t flinch from the jagged terrain of her recovery. Eventually one person is able to reach Mirielle, and it’s not who you expect. All in all, it added a very nice twist.

Roxane Gay dedicates his novel “to all women” and this dedication is fittingly appropriate, as this book lays bare the plight of women and their struggles. Not a pretty read, but a necessary one. Loved this!

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Review: what purpose did i serve in your life



Review for “what purpose did i serve in your life” by Marie Calloway

Rating: No rating

I can’t unwrap my head around this one, other than to say that I wish I could unread this book. I wish I could delete it from my Kindle and act like the front cover and the title didn’t intrigue me to download it in the first place. But I can’t. Boo.

As a feminist I wanted to like this, as I’m always interested in feminism and sex-positive stories are always a plus for me. But there was none of that to be had here. This book is painful, twisted, and just…so…ugly. And it’s frustrating, because you can see Calloway’s point, buried somewhere in the muck of her detached realism and ridiculous online posturing. I don’t necessarily have a problem with her writing about casual sex with rapey losers she meets on the Internet, but why? Why is she doing this? She never really gives a context for anything, just a contrived, artsy, “I need to explore this” kind of attitude. It’s not even fulfilling sex, it’s cruel, painful sex with men she barely knows that humiliate and hurts her physically and make her feel subhuman. She clearly uses demeaning sexual encounters with less than stellar men to define her self-worth and cope with insecurities and past sexual abuse. She hints several times at having Daddy issues, but just as she gets to something interesting, the self dialogue stops and she abruptly stops the narrative. 

Her refusal to connect the dots between her emotional detachment and her sexual encounters seem to suggest that Calloway is merely interested in exposure of a prurient variety, i.e., pathological exhibitionism. In that vein, this book gives more than what you need. There are shots of Calloway nude, of her covered in bruises from a “bdsm” encounter, of her with a mouthful of semen, you get the picture. There is nothing inherently brave or noble she achieves in showing us this–it just makes her an attention whore, and an honest one at that. I want to send a memo to Miss Calloway that writing about sex in graphic terms (with photo proof to back it up) while being young and female isn’t provocative anymore, nor is it particularly interesting. At 200 pages, given the topic, this book still manages to drag, and some sections I skipped altogether. I wanted to put it down many times, and not because it shocked me, but because it bored the hell out of me.

This book did nothing for me at all. What would be shocking for me would be an emotionally healthy Marie, writing about sex in a way that reflected that mind state. But being normal doesn’t bring Internet fame these days, does it? Tsk, tsk…

Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory



Review for “The Impossible Knife of Memory” by Laurie Halse Anderson

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Not a terrible book, but a book that felt very wrong to me, especially as the spouse of a PTSD sufferer. 

My husband is a combat veteran. He served in the Air Force for almost 20 years, and in that time he served 4 tours overseas, including one in Kuwait (Desert Storm) and one in Iraq. I know about the nightmares, the alcohol, the depression, the silences, etc. I don’t have a problem with the author’s choice to talk about PTSD in a young adult novel, but the way she presents the narrative–through the eyes of an annoying and overly angry 17 year old girl–was completely disappointing. 

The characterization of the main character, Hayley, is at the heart of everything that’s wrong with this book. She is cold, close-minded, and judgmental of nearly EVERYBODY she comes into contact with. She hates everything and everyone–teachers, people in authority, girls, boys, kids at school she perceives to be better off than she is, school, life, her dad, her dad’s girlfriend. In her opinion, people are either “freaks” or “zombies” and there is no in between. I understand that Hayley has been through a lot with her dad and has a shitty attitude for that reason, but she was so over-the-top angry about everything and everyone that she was completely unrelatable and hard to sympathize with. She did have one female friend, Gracie, but throughout the book I wondered how they became or even how they stayed friends, given how hateful she was. Which brings me to another issue I had with this book…Hayley’s boyfriend Finn. I just didn’t get him at all. They have a very awkward romance and throughout the entire story she never really stops being bitchy towards him. He begs her to write for the school paper (which never materializes), follows her, won’t take no for an answer until he eventually just…stays. There’s no rhyme or reason to their relationship, or any discernible reason why he’s so intent on being with her. Although their courtship is somewhat cute, it just didn’t seem realistic to me.

Another underlying current I didn’t like was the fact that Hayley spends a large portion of the novel hating her dad’s girlfriend Trish for a reason that’s never fully explained or elaborated on. While it is revealed that she was a drunk who walked out on Hayley and her dad while he was overseas, the same flashbacks reveal her father to be an abusive, alcoholic shithead who put up his fair share of crap in the relationship too. So what if she left? I wanted to scream at this girl. She had every right to leave. At least she got rid of her drinking problem and thought enough about you to come back and try to make things right. No bueno though…it just comes off as yet more woman-hate spewed by a completely inept and poorly crafted character. 

This book was nearly 400 pages but should have been 200. Needless drama and angry brooding about a subject that got way too sanitized in the process. I loved Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Speak’, but this didn’t come close.

Review: Mira Corpora

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Review for “Mira Corpora” by Jeff Jackson
Rating: None

I won’t rate this book because ten minutes after I have finished reading it I am still not exactly sure of what I’ve read. Perhaps knowing what I read is not the author’s point, or maybe the big question mark I have here is exactly THE point, because it kept me intrigued long enough to sit through 186 pages, only to sit in a stunned silence when it was over, staring at the cover like WTF?

Eventually I will probably have read this again to gather up the (rather large) pieces I missed, but I can say that this is a very very unusual novel with a style that seems more like a Harmony Korine film than a book. There are weird people, weirder places (the main character spends a LOT of time in the woods), and the major scenes from the characters’ life is broken up into sections with quotes. There are also a lot of times in the book where I could not differentiate between the character’s dreams and his reality, they blended so perfectly that the whole story had an almost ethereal kinda quality to it. Very cool.

I would read this book if you are interested something different, far outside of the mainstream confines of the NY Times bestseller.

Review: Sweet Nothing

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Review for “Sweet Nothing” by Richard Lange
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

At this point, I will read just about anything that Richard Lange writes. I was wowed by his short story collection “Dead Boys,” impressed with his novel “Angel Baby,” and even though I was a lil less than happy with his other novel, “This Wicked World,” it’s ok. I love his subject matter–people who find it hard to fit in and fly right. In any other novel you’d dismissively call his characters losers and turn the page, but Lange paints his characters so lovingly that you are willing to forgive them for their missteps and give them another chance. His writing is always fresh and entertaining. Take this line from “The 100-to-1 Club”:

“My day began in a jail, and now I’m trapped in a racetrack shitter. Somebody’s made some bad choices. Again.”

[*LMAO…*]

This short story collection does not disappoint. There are guards, gamblers, ex junkies, and border crossers, and manners of people in between that make up the fabric of this lovely book. In “Must Come Down” we encounter a young father whose father in law’s ‘business’ proves way more than he can handle. In “The Wolf of Bordeaux” a good natured prison guard attempts to protect an inmate accused of a terrible crime. In the “The 100-to-1 Club,” a gambling addict risks all for a bet and loses everything in the process. In “Apocrypha,” an ex criminal finagles his way out of a burglary plan, just in the nick of time. And in my favorite story, “Sweet Nothing,” an ex junkie finally makes the right choice and reaps himself a great reward.

As I said before, I loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone and would be terribly disappointed if it doesn’t end up on the “Best Of” lists for 2015…

On the Invaluable Value of Notebooking

From an essay by Ian Brown on keeping a notebook, as published in the Globe and Mail:

“It’s a neurotic habit, a personal notebook. It can work as a diary, but it’s not intended for publication…A diary is an accounting. A notebook, by contrast, is to record details that reach out as you pass, for reasons not immediately apparent. A notebook is full of moments from days that have yet to become something. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether,” Joan Didion wrote in a famous essay about notebooks, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

I have always kept some kind of notebook from the time I began writing, when I was 10 or 11. All kinds of stuff would go in there, homework assignments, what I wore for school, funny observations about people I was too shy to discuss with anyone (“she wore that sweater yesterday, her hair smells like cheese”), diary entries, ideas for stories. I can’t find a single trace of these notebooks today, but I can tell you that to this day, my notebooking habit endures. There is my trusty red moleskine notebook/planner that I write EVERYTHING in (appointments, meetings, interesting things I watch on TV, books I’d like to read, what bills to pay and when) and my plain brown, Staples composition book that functions more as a diary. Here I do not edit, and write completely without censoring myself. I never intend to publish what is in my diary because I’ve always looked upon it as a playground for exploration, a way to process certain events and understand them. Anyone who is serious about the craft should probably be writing in a notebook, it’s the best (and cheapest) therapies you’ll find.

More of Ian Brown’s article is here

Review: We Need New Names

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Review for “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked the first half of this book. The language is rich, the characters realistic, and the main character’s voice soars off of the page. The novel is set in Zimbabwe in the late 90’s, where we first meet Darling, a likeable, whip-smart young girl living in an ironically named shantytown called Paradise along with her interestingly named friends (Bastard, Sbho, Chipo, and Godknows). Bulawayo does not give us a pretty picture of Paradise, however. There is crippling poverty, daily starvation (with Darling and her friends stealing fruit from trees to survive), the government’s systematic destruction of what little homes Darling and her neighbors have, and one of her 11-year-old friends is pregnant (presumably from a rape by a family member). Despite the bleak landscape of the novel I loved the fact that Bulawayo chose to portray her child narrator with equal parts of innocence and resiliency. There was a fair share of times within the book where I found myself laughing out loud at Darling’s observations–a trip to church with her grandmother, as well as her account of NGO workers, who take pictures of them and give them “loads of things they don’t need.” It’s a harsh world, but a beautiful one in which the children dreamingly drift away their days without school, playing games and eating fruit.

About mid-way through the book Darling immigrates to America. Here, though, her voice becomes disconnected from the rest of the narrative. While I imagine that a certain degree of this is intentional (Bulawayo is mirroring the voicelessness of the immigrant experience), it is not particularly interesting to read. The first part of the book crackled with energy, and it was such a let-down to read the second half–mostly, Darling’s blandly prescribed accounts of fat Americans, the appearance of snow, going to the mall, and watching porn with her friends.

I wouldn’t advise people not to read this book. Bulawayo does not waste words, each chapter was strong enough to stand as a short story on its own. Bulawayo is a good writer, and I loved the solidness of her prose. I look forward to her further writing in the future, she is definitely one to watch.