Review: I Am Still Alive

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Review for "I Am Still Alive" by Kate Alice Marshall (2018)

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This was between three and four stars for me. Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” meets The Revenant. It’s a compelling read, but not quite what I expected.

When the story begins, Jess, a 16 year old girl, has been sent to the Canadian wilderness to live with her father whom she barely knows. She has recently lost her mother in an automobile accident, the same which has left her without the full use of her legs. She struggles to adjust to life in the remote wilderness where one must live off of the land and only way in and out is via plane. She learns a bit about hunting and fishing through her father and begins to build somewhat of a bond with him until he is killed by two mysterious visitors to their cabin. The men burn the cabin down, not realizing that Jess and her dad’s dog, Bo, are in the woods hiding. For several months, Jess is left on her own, finding food and shelter and surviving in the wilderness. Eventually she discovers the reason behind her father’s death and plots out a plan for revenge.

Essentially, this is a survival story. There is the revenge element, but that plot is not in play until late in the novel. For the first 2/3rds of the book, we are reading about Jess being cold, wet, in pain, and just hating her life in general. While I’m not gonna call her a whiner (hell, I’d be whining too!), I will say that not much happens early on in this book beyond descriptions of her misery. It’s cool–just not quite what I expected. I did keep reading though. Not for the survival stuff, but for the kick-ass revenge part.

I’m not in a rush to recommend this, unless you like survival stories.

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Review: The Other Wes Moore

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Review for "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates" by Wes Moore (2010)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ack…I DNF’d this one.

The idea behind this book is indeed noteworthy, as we’ve all wondered at some time or another about the life of another individual who, by some stroke of fate, happens to have the same name as we do. In this book, the author does just that as he discovers another man with his same name and similar age, also raised in the city of Baltimore. He begins a prison correspondence with the “other” Wes Moore and sets out to explore where their paths in life diverged. The author is a former White House Fellow, a writer, and an Army veteran. The “other” Wes Moore is serving time in prison, has fathered several children, is a convicted drug felon, and had an attempted murder conviction all before the age of 18.

The premise of this book is flawed, however. Moore points to the commonality of absentee fathers and poverty between the two of them, but this is simply not true. While both Moores grew up fatherless, the author’s father died, he was not abandoned. Secondly, Moore’s mother, even though a widow, had a strong support system. The author half-heartedly acknowledges this, as well as his privilege of attending a private school during his formative years to steer him away from bad behavior and negative influences. Also, while the negative behavior that author Wes Moore speaks of (tagging buildings with graffiti, etc) is akin to a middle class teenager’s ideas of rebellion, the “other” Wes Moore’s descent into drug dealing and criminal behavior is not rebelliousness but a necessity, a way of gaining power in a single parent household as the ‘man of the house.’ Even though the “other” Wes Moore’s choice to delve into criminality was his own doing, the lack of a support system and the presence of poverty in his life cannot be understated.

I stopped reading this book about 2/3 of the way through, once the faulty premise became apparent. Perhaps I’ll pick this up in the future, but for right now, I’m good.

Review: Girl Trouble

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Review for "Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir" by Kerry Cohen (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I read Kerry Cohen’s memoir “Loose Girl” a few years ago, so I decided to see what this book was about. This is a memoir that chronicles the author’s very complex relationships with women, beginning with her older sister and continuing throughout her childhood to the present day. Each relationship is presented vignette-style, with illustrations of several of the characters included within. Some of the relationships Cohen discusses are friendships, others describe a contentious situation (i.e., the author being bullied by another girl), some girls are passing acquaintances.

I certainly understand Cohen’s reason for writing this book. It seems that she wanted to not just talk about girl relationships but to examine the many, many ways in which women can be cruel to one another. There are problems with this, however. One of the main ones here I noticed was that the author seems quick to discuss the many times in which she has been victimized by girls and women, yet minimizes her own actions in some situations in which she was equally cruel. Case in point: a period during the author’s college years in which she admits that she slept with a friend’s boyfriend. She tells us that the boyfriend was not really her friend’s boyfriend, just some guy she was seeing at the time. Either way, when the cheating was discovered, her friend stopped speaking to her. The author meets up with the friend years later after she writes about it in “Loose Girl” and tries to explain herself, yet her tone is not one of contrition (after all, she did go and write a book about it) but one of slight indignation, as if the friend just should have ‘gotten over it’ already. 

There’s other layers here of meaning I could talk about here, but it’s repetitive. After a while each “friend” and each “boy” all sounded the same and reading this became tiresome. And the illustrations, while good, didn’t really add anything to the book. Picture here, more words. Picture there, more words. Blah.

Even though I get the point, I can’t help but to feel that this is essentially the same book as “Loose Girl,” only with a slightly different focus. Many of the same incidents from that book are retold here.

No mas. Two stars.

Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Review for "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ll say this and I’ll say it again–at this point in my life I will read anything that Ottessa Moshfegh writes. I’ve read all of her novels (McGlue, Eileen, and her short story collection Homesick for Another World) and I consider them not just reading, but something that, for me, is more of an experience. You find yourself entering another world through her words, a parallel universe. Most of the time the universe that Moshfegh writes about is full of ugly and repulsive people who are trapped somehow–in drinking, drugs, self-loathing.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” follows the same theme of unlikable characters that Moshfegh is known for. The unnamed narrator is young, thin, blonde, and pretty and reminds you of this every 10 pages or so. She is wealthy, lives in a great apartment in NYC and works in a hip art gallery. However, she is depressed. Under a “mask” of having it all, she grows up with cold and unloving parents. Her boyfriend treats her like a doormat. The one friend that she has, Reva, is not really her friend, but a punching bag for her passive-aggressive anger.

In response, the narrator decides to take a year off to sleep, and, in her words, ‘hibernate.’ She finds a psychiatrist in a phone book and tells elaborate lies to get every drug imaginable to sleep and stay that way. For an entire year, the narrator exists in this dreamlike, comatose state of waking, sleeping, recalling periodic visits with her friend, watching old movies, pondering the past, and sleeping some more. She comes up occasionally for air to get coffee, or realize that she’s done weird things while under (partying, shopping, talking to strangers online, etc). When she emerges from her year of sleep, the results are quite profound and (dare I say it) bittersweet.

As with Moshfegh’s last novel, Eileen, the plot is not the strong suit here. This is more of a character study with a depressed, highly unlikable character at the center. As with Moshfegh’s other novels, I could not stop reading this book, even as the character’s behavior completely repulsed me. That’s the gift of this writer though, she makes the ugly somehow appealing.

Definitely read this one. 5 stars.

Review: Fever Dream

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Review for "Fever Dream" by Samanta Schweblin (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The experience of reading “Fever Dream” is like sitting in a room with a blindfold on. You can’t see anything but you can definitely feel emotion–fear, anger, dread. Every now and then the blindfold lifts and you get an image of Something, but it’s indistinct and unexplainable. You sit in the dark some more and you get another image, different from the last one. Eventually you attempt to put together what you’ve seen into a narrative, but you can’t. It’s unsettling and wild. Confusing.

It’s hard to describe this novel because it really isn’t about anything. On the surface it is about a young mother, dying in a hospital. Her daughter is missing and she is not sure how she got there. The entire book is a conversation between this woman and a little boy who is not hers about what has happened to her and her daughter. But you know that that’s not really it, it’s just window dressing on a deeper layer of meaning. Through the bits and pieces of the conversation between these two characters you get that this book explores parental fear, transference and counter-transference, environmental contamination, issues of trust, and some heavy duty psychoanalysis. The dialogue between the main character and the little boy is maddeningly circular and strange. It’s weird, but I was totally in for the ride.

I’ve said here before that books that are confusing are not good ones. After reading this, I realize that I may need to walk back that statement. There is so much to unpack here that I will probably reread this, and I’ll be happy when I do that. “Fever Dream” is definitely worth reading, but be aware that it is not a traditional story with neat characters, a detailed plot, and a conclusive ending. This is bizarre and murky and all over the place. If you are into dark and somewhat experimental reads and don’t mind doing a little brain work, I recommend this.

This is a short book, so I would advise letting it hit you all at once. Read it in as few sittings as possible.

Review: The Mars Room

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Review for "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It took me almost a month to read this book. Based on its glowing reviews and my initial enthusiasm when I first picked it up, this should have been a book that I breezed right through. It wasn’t.

“The Mars Room” opens with the story of Romy Hall, a single mother shackled on a bus and headed to a remote women’s prison in California to begin two life sentences without parole. In the time before, we learn that her young life was full of trauma and neglect–drugs, hustling, and working as a dancer at a strip club that bears the book’s title, The Mars Room. The novel begins with details of Romy’s adjustment to prison life, the harsh conditions of confinement, and the connections she makes on the inside. Interspersed with Romy’s narrative are the stories of other characters in the facility and beyond: Sammy, her cell mate, Gordon, a teacher in the prison who falls for Romy, Doc, a crooked cop in a separate facility that’s loosely connected to the story’s events, and at last, Kurt, Romy’s victim.

The story started out well, but as it continued I found it harder and harder to engage with. Romy, in my opinion, was far too distant and aloof. There is a sense of empathy that you feel for Romy’s circumstances, but nothing was felt as far as a personal connection to her. The other perspectives fare no better—they absentmindedly jump around between first and third pov’s in short, vignette-style chapters. Also problematic was the reason behind the inclusion of several of them–Doc, for instance (as I mentioned before, he is only loosely connected to the events of the story). There are also excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diary, lengthy quotes from Henry David Thoreau. I’m still not sure what either of those perspectives were doing here.

There are also plot events that were so predictable that I knew how they would play out before even starting the book. Beyond setting up the basics of the story, nothing significant seems to really happen until the end and by then it’s too much, too late.

And finally…I know that women in prison make great stories, but it bothers me that this novel really doesn’t break any new ground here. What I’m saying is that there really isn’t anything in this book that we haven’t heard or seen already that hasn’t appeared in an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” What, then, is the point of this novel? If it is to stress how women on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale end up incarcerated, then we are already well familiar with this through investigative reporting on this issue, OITNB, and a multitude of other books out there. If it is to make a larger point beyond this (hence the inclusion of Kaczynski and Thoreau), then count me among those that simply didn’t get “it.”

Overall, I think that “The Mars Room” is a book with a lot of potential but doesn’t really have anything new to say.

I rate this as 3 stars, and that’s being more than nice.

Review: Animals Eat Each Other

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Review for "Animals Eat Each Other" by Elle Nash (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ok, I’ll admit it…the intriguing title–“Animals Eat Each Other”–of this book pulled me in. There is no animal on the cover, only a mirrored, vintage 1970’s style photo of a smiling woman. So I picked this up and read it, having never heard before of the author, Elle Nash. About 10 pages in, I realized that I was reading something quite special. Needless to say, I loved every moment of this book.

The unnamed 19-year-old narrator lives with her mother and works at a Radio Shack. She spends her extra time consuming Robitussin, taking her mom’s Percocets, and having empty, loveless sex with the people around her to boost her self-esteem. She is self-destructive and knows this, her narrative never condemns or denies this fact. The main character’s self-hate and need for physical and emotional pain lead her into becoming involved in a three-way sadomasochistic relationship with a man named Matt and his girlfriend, Frankie. Immediately we know that three is a crowd here, and it isn’t going to end well. The ‘darkness’ of the situation does not stop the narrator, who becomes obsessed with Matt and her behavior spirals further downward out of control.

What I loved about this book most was its sense of rawness and its lack of shame. You feel what the main character feels with her body, and it’s OK. I think this book speaks to where a lot of young women (me included) find themselves in their 20’s: passionate, energetic, vulnerable, and driven by a deep need to be desired. It is this vulnerability that takes the narrator to dark places, which she does not resist. There is a kind of madness in human attraction, pleasure in pain.

This novel is careful not to preach or moralize. It is not a cautionary tale. You’re not told what to do when you finish it. When I got to the last page I just let out a breath because…well, because. Immediately I wished this had been longer, but then again I think the short length here (120 pages) is appropriate because the narrator’s self-loathing is quite intense. As much as I loved this, this book is a dark, dark place. The author’s choice to get in there, tell the story in as few pages as possible, and move on is a good one.

The transgressive stuff in this book will turn off some readers (lots and lots of sex, drugs, Satanism) but these are not the ones who this book is for. I definitely recommend this if you are into darker stories that explore human nature and relationships.