BOOK REVIEWS

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Readers who enjoy the works of Zadie Smith or Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar may find White Dancing Elephants to have some merit. If you are thinking of reading this collection I recommend you read some of the more positives reviews as my one is alas a negative one. For those who liked or loved it, I hope you will not feel the need to leave comments on the lines of ‘your opinion are invalid because I disagree with you’.

Anyhow, moving onto my actual review: this is, in my opinion, an execrable collection of short stories. These stories are poorly written, populated by boilerplate characters, deeply vitriolic and exceedingly vexing.
White Dancing Elephants follows the usual ‘short stories collection’ formula, so that we have a few stories experimenting, with not so great results, with perspective (of course, a story is told through a 2nd pov because that is what every other collection out there is doing so might as well follow their lead), a story about miscarriage (bursting with metaphors about ‘brokeness’), a story about a character grappling with mental illness, and a story that earns this collection the LGBTQ+ badge (ahem not all queer representation is good representation). If you’ve read any collections of short stories published in the last 3 years, you have already read stories like these ones.

There was nothing subversive or unique about White Dancing Elephants. Attempts at ‘edginess’ came across as insensitive, for example, the author’s treatment of mental health was, to use a trendy word, deeply problematic.
What irked me the most however was how unclear these stories were. The author seemed unable or unwilling to stick to a certain perspective, so that it would be unclear who was telling the story. And, these stories managed to be confusing, which is impressive given how short they were. This is probably due to the nebulous povs and the amount of info-dumping we would at the start of each story (informing us of a character’s heritage, their parents backgrounds, their friends’ genetic makeup or whatnot). Knowing who these characters were related to, most of the time at least, added absolutely nothing to each respective story as ‘family’ never seemed to be the plot’s real focus. Instead, each story seemed set on being as impressionistic as possible, so that we have ripe metaphors are intent on being ‘visceral’ but seem like mere writing exercises, and a plethora of ‘shock-value’ scenes. Personally I was unimpressed by the author’s language. We have oddly phrased things, such as
“it gave her flickers of amusement” (while I get that you can observe on someone’s face a ‘flicker of amusement’ the ‘gave her’ in that sentence brings me pause), clichés such as “smiling the smile”, “smiling her gorgeous smile”, “my father a stranger until his death”, “ Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed.” (UGH! Give me a break). A lot of the stories start with very eye-grabbing statements, that tease some dramatic event that once explained or explored will feel deeply anticlimactic. Also, I could not help but be offended by the author’s garish depictions of rape and its aftereffects. And don’t even get me started on the role that same-sex attraction has in two of these stories. Puh-lease. There is a lot of women-hating-women, which can happen…but in nearly every story? (and WHY do we always have to get women making snidey remarks about other women’s stomachs?). Last but not least, I did not appreciate that the one story where a black man actually plays some sort of role, ends up portraying him as a racist and a predator.
The author’s prose (if we can call it such), the derogatory tone, the detestable and showy characters, the uninspired stories…they all did nothing for me.
To be perfectly frank the only thing that surprised about this collection was that it managed to get published in the first place.

Collections I can recommend that explore similar themes: Milk Blood Heat and Sarbina & Corina: Stories<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849
.

MY RATING: 1 out of 5 stars<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

“All men are the same, they only know how to love themselves and to sit on women.”

His Only Wife is an engrossing story that hooked me from the very first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”. The novel tells the story of Afi, a young woman who works as a seamstress in a small town in Ghana. When Faustina Ganyo, her benefactor who also happens to be her widowed mother’s boss, arranges her marriage to her own son, Afi views it as a great honour and a lifetime opportunity. She feels indebted to Aunty and wants to please her own mother. Before the marriage Afi is informed of Elikem’s particular situation: he has a daughter with his a woman from Liberia, whom is hated by the Ganyos. Afi is meant to replace her, to bring Elikem back into the fold of the Ganyo family.
Once in Accra, Afi finds herself growing restless. In spite of her beautiful new apartment and her newly acquired wealth, she questions the validity of her marriage: after all, she only saw her Elikem years previously and has yet to meet him as her husband. Her Aunty, her brother-in-law, and her mother try to placate her anxiety, telling her tall-tales about the ‘Liberian woman’ has brainwashed him and of how Elikem’s daughter poor health. When Afi finally gets to meet her husband she finds herself falling head-over-heels for him. He’s attractive and influential, and Afi is willing to conform to the role of ideal wife for him.
As time passes, and Afi begins studying fashion and bonding with her brother-in-law’s lover, she begins to chafe against the constraints imposed by the Ganyos, who time and again tell her not too demand too much from her husband, and remind her, subtly and not, of the advantages brought by her marrying ‘upward’. When Afi grows increasingly jealous of the ‘Liberian woman’, she begins to disregards the Ganyos’ and her husband’s, desires and demands.

Quotidian spaces and seemingly ordinary conversations lead to fraught disagreements and disconcerting realisations. Afi’s flashy new abode is the setting of many tense scenes, with her husband, the Ganyos’, her mother. The drama ’caused’ by the ‘Liberian woman’ creates a lot of conflict between Afi and her husband (and the Ganyos in general). As Afi grows tired of her circumstances, of being told to be grateful and to sit tight, she begin to crave autonomy and power in her own marriage.

While the tension between Afi and the rest of the characters made for some pretty absorbing scenes, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by Afi. While it made sense for her to be naive, she just seemed to get used to her new life pretty fast (she treats staff poorly). Her devotion, verging on obsession, over Elikem didn’t really convince me. One meeting and she’s seemingly in love? Yet, for the majority of the novel he dons’t treat her nicely, showing ‘kindness’ only once or twice towards the end of the narrative. That she believes all the gossip about his ‘other’ woman also struck me as unrealistic. She’s aware of how the Ganyos treat and speak of the people who ‘wronged’ them, surely she would consider the possibility of those stories being less than truthful? Then it seemed that all of a sudden the idea of this ‘other’ woman was unbearable to her, when she knew from the very start that he was already in a relationship with someone else (making Afi the ‘other’ woman).
Her character development is kind of rushed. At the end she finally seems to get her act together, but by then I was no longer enjoying her narrative.
Part of me wishes that the Liberian woman had also been given a pov, making the novel feel less biased. I also wish that we could have seen more of Afi without the Ganyos (for example scenes while she’s studying fashion would have been nice, or even her socialising with more people outside of her apartment).
Still, Medie does touch upon relevant issues, such the impact and pressure exerted by family and social expectations, and emphasising the double standards in marriage throughout the course of her narrative. Medie also depicts the sexist attitudes of those in Afi and the Ganyos’ circle (a friend of husband says this: “man wasn’t made to be with one woman. You’re a lion, you should have an entire pride!” and I saw red).
Love, jealousy, betrayal, and angst add some spice to the story, making for some mostly entertaining reading material.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

Untitled drawing (4).jpg

“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

THE FAR FIELD: BOOK REVIEW

Untitled-1.jpg

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

The Far Field is an exceptional debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a quietly intense tale that both conjures and conveys feelings of uncertainty.

After her mother’s death Shalini becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed —an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini is a cypher. She is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes frustrating but it also created tension. Would she finally unwind? Could she be able to really live in the present? Connect with others?

Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and frustrated by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self.
Shalini was also utterly naive and rather self-centred. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions.
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.
Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.

This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.
Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are not often.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.
This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, and isolation. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s writing lyrical writing often allowed me to forget of the unease created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one. WHY?!

Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.

PS: I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Sneha Mathan. Mathan does an incredibly job. Her voice is 1)beautiful 2)capable of making me feel a wide range of emotions 3)simply captivating

View all my reviews

 

BOOK REVIEWS

AS LONG AS WE BOTH SHALL LIVE: BOOK REVIEW

As Long as We Both Shall Live by JoAnn Chaney
★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

So here’s the thing: if you want to kill your wife, don’t. Don’t kill her, don0t touch her. Ditch the bitch if you have to, get on with your life. Or make it work. But kill her? Nope.

As Long as We Both Shall Live has one of the most captivating prologues I have ever read….sadly the rest novel doesn’t live up to it.

37638016

This novel tries too hard to come across as a hard-boiled detective story. With plenty of weird and unpleasant metaphors (ie. a man’s ‘thin’ lips are like ‘tuna’ ? w-h-a-t!) and an abundance of ass&balls jokes it just felt like being inside the head of an eight-year-old boy who has just learned ‘naughty’ words. These odd descriptions, unfunny quips, and the ‘trying-too-hard-to-be-hard’ dialogues pulled me right away from the story. Bit of pity since I wanted to like Chaney’s wicked humour.

There is this Detective Loren (the typical vulgar bully with a heart of gold) who is completely unprofessional. He is insubordinate and threatens witnesses and suspects alike. Really? Am I to believe that the secretary he cornered hasn’t put a complaint with his name stamped on it?

“Your boss-man, is he porking anyone in the office?”
Loren asked, a grin slowly blooming on his face.
“Pardon?”
“Oh, you heard me, Jilly. Is there some hot little piece of ass in the mailroom that might be riding his baloney pony during lunch hours?”

First of all, who even talks like that? Secondly, why does the narrative try to make this guy, Loren, seem like the typical ‘bear with the heart of gold’?!
His backstory served little purpose and only slowed the main narrative. Moreover, by giving this Loren-character the stage, the female detective, Spengler, is cast off to the sidelines. I would have rather had more of her personal life than Loren’s. Spengler is presented to us as the typical ‘attractive woman in an all men’s club’. Her colleagues – all men – make vulgar remarks about her and find her to be a ‘cold bitch’. This is such a bloody cliché. A) Why does she have to be uber beautiful? B) Why are all men depicted as dogs-in-heat?

Now, the biggest problem with this novel is that it was trying to ‘outdo’ (view spoiler) and the narrative perfectly acknowledges this: view spoiler
Now, I’m not suggesting that this type of ‘borrowing‘ doesn’t work. Barbara Vine (who wrote a number a brilliant psychological mysteries) uses a similar technique,(view spoiler). Here however this comes across as little more than a cheap trick.
For a long portion of the novel Matt and his relationship to his now dead wife, Marie, get very little page-time. They seem so barely sketched out that I never started to care about who did what. Their motivations and actions are incredibly unbelievable and melodramatic. The wife vs. husband jokes got old fast. (view spoiler)

You could call it Stockholm Syndrome, or you could call it marriage. Tomayto, tomahto.

Their daughters, and Marie’s friends make one-time only appearances that are completely laughable.
Lastly, I did not like the way in which the novel portrays men. They are all crass and or stupid. And the story wants to make it seem like Loren, the worst of them all, is actually the best of the lot? Nah.
And why is a woman breaking the law any better than a man breaking the law? Spengler is so unprofessional in that she seems (view spoiler).

It was unfortunate, but sometimes a woman had to take extreme measure to teach a man a lesson.

Disappointing, unbelievable, and with an incredibly over the top finale that is 100% soap opera, the only good thing about this novel is its prologue.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS

AN ANONYMOUS GIRL: BOOK REVIEW


An Anonymous Girl
by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

★✰✰✰✰ 1 of 5 stars

A better suited title for this novel would be An Edgy Girl.
Image result for an anonymous girl book

This is the mostly badly written book I have ever read. An Anonymous Girl is a bad version of the rather dodgy film Cruel Intentions with an added sprinkle of a soap opera.

If you enjoyed this book, please look away now.
If you are thinking of reading this book, I entreat you to think twice.

 

I don’t like to be the ‘bad guy’. And by ‘bad guy’ I mean the type of reviewer who writes harsh reviews and is overly critic about certain genres. I always try to remind myself that people will have different tastes and it isn’t fair to be too critical or rude about a book… in this case however I can’t quite comprehend how this book has so many positive reviews. What in the whole history of literature is happening? Have I landed in some alternative reality? Did I read a completely different book?

I was tempted to pinch myself while I was reading my copy of An Anonymous Girl to see if I was actually awake and reading or if I was having a nightmare. Turns out, I was wide awake and reading what I have come to regard as the worst book I have ever had the displeasure to read.
My review will include incriminating evidence some quotes from An Anonymous Girl which will corroborate my unfavourable review of this novel.

I do not expect all psychological thrillers to be as well written as the ones by Gillian Flynn or Tana French. While I do consider some of the authors that I read to be ‘guilty pleasures’ (Colleen Hoover, Harlan Coben) I do not believe in the existence of ‘lowbrow fiction’.
I started An Anonymous Girl thinking that it would be one of the many – far too many – Gone Girl wannabes. I didn’t expect to be mind-blown but I was hoping to read a suspenseful and entertaining mystery.
A few pages in, I lowered my already low expectations.
So…here goes my ranty review.

THE WRITING

I could talk about the idiotic plot – which revolves around the typical triangle of people, with shifting ‘power dynamics’, betrayals, jealousies, yadda yadda yadda – the unbelievable and one-dimensional characters, the predictable and laughable twists….or I could address the main problem…the writing.
This ‘novel’ (calling this a novel feels wrong) is so badly written that I am surprised it was published in the first place. The writing reminded me of a text that has been translated by Google translator. Yes, it is that bad.
Jessica Farris and Dr. Shields are the main characters and narrators of this story.
Jessica is a the typical lead, forgettable and as bland as toothpaste. She thinks she is different from others because of a ‘traumatic event’ which might or might not be her own fault (insert predictable saw-that-coming twist here), and Dr. Shields is the ‘intelligent’ and ‘manipulative’ villainess (a Bond villain cast off ).

1) Jessica’s point of view included a lot of cheesy observations. We are to believe that her focus is on making money and her family but really all she cares about is clothes. She sounds like an effing advert:

The first rule: my unofficial uniform. I wear all black, which eliminates the need to coordinate a new outfit every morning. It also sends a message of subtle authority. I choose comfortable, machine-washable layers that will look as fresh at seven P. M. as they do at seven A. M.

This sounds like the voiceover of some tacky ad? Or…this reads a lot like lazy handwriting, and I am sure there are other ways of telling your readers that a character dresses professionally.
Or this actually seems like a rip off from the opening scene of American Psycho, but whereas that was satirical…this isn’t.

My skin is darker than Dr. Shield’s, and my fingers are shorter. Instead of elegant, the color looks edgy on me.

This is hilarious. What the actual fork? What kind of person would use the word ‘edgy’ to describe their clothes/appearance/makeup…? An angsty rebellious teenager? I don’t even think they would…real people wouldn’t. I doubt that a ‘professional’ twenty-eight year old woman would refer to her nail varnish as being ‘edgy’.

Her neck is long and graceful, and no amount of contouring can create the kind of cheekbones she possess.

Of course, both Jessica and Dr. Shields are beautiful. We will be reminded of this. A lot.

Her periwinkle turtleneck sweater and silk skirt skin her long, lithe body.

What is the obsession with clothes?! And why do we have to be constantly reminded

 that these two women dress like fashion models? And why use ‘lithe’ and beautiful every other sentence…

As soon as I am beside her, I smell her clean, spicy perfume.

Enough already! This is not a perfume ad!

Excessive focus on appearances and clothing-wear aside, Jessica’s POV had a lot weirdly phrased observations or sentences:

I rub Germ-X on my hands and pop an Altoid in my mouth before I ring the buzzer for Apartment 6D. I’m five minutes early. Another rule.

The first sentence is so superfluous. Why specify that you put cream on your hands and an Altoid in your mouth? Where else would you put them? And what is the deal with these short snappy sentences?! They do not create a rhythm or build up suspense, they simply come across as being artificial and oddly contrived.
And why does Jessica sound like an unbelievably stupid guide book?

Intellectually, I can’t see how this could hurt anyone.

Intellectually, I don’t see how this book is so hyped. Also, using intellectually isn’t very…’intellectual’ or believable. It sounds like something that a pantomime actor would say. Who in the world would say: Intellectually, I see your point or some nonsense like that. No one.
But Jessica gets even better, and here are her remarks after an encounter with the most hilariously badly written ‘drug addict’ in the history, a man who within half a page we discover – shock horror – is paranoid and beats his girlfriend up…yep, *drug addict alert* …or maybe that is how they behave in csi or soap operas…

“The guy was bad news!”

“But that woman you sent me to? Her boyfriend was clearly on drugs.”

Jessica saying ‘that guy is bad news’ non-ironically did make me laugh, so cheers for that.

Anyhow, these quotes are just a few examples of why Jessica’s narration is terrible: she sounds like a mix between a l’oreal voiceover and an off-key new adult novel – yet, her chapters seem somewhat competent – yes, I kid you not – when compared to Dr. Shields’ POV.

2) Prepare yourself for the never written before Dr.Shields: the manipulative, sexy and dangerous woman…who sounds like a forking A.I.
The best way to let your readers know that you are reading from the POV of a mysterious and seductive woman is to make her sound like a forking sexy robot. Because distancing the reader through a stilted and impersonal narration is a clever way of introducing them to the ‘villain’ of the story.
A few examples below:

It was the question you didn’t answer, though, the one you struggled with as you scraped at your nails, that holds the most intrigue. This test can free you, Subject 52. Surrender to it.

Dun dun dun….
Does she have to sound so theatrical?

You stand out, and not only because of your unconventional beauty.

From every angle, you are enchanting.

This time it is Dr. Shields who is checking out Jessica. Sounding like some sort of predator. And just reminding us readers that we are indeed reading of two beautiful women.
Since Dr. Shields is an intelligent woman here are a few of her insightful nuggets:

It is easy to judge other’s people choices. It is far more complex when the choices are your own.

Trust is a necessary component of a committed relationship.

A fortune cookie would provide me with the same information. 
The worst aspect of her POV is that it refers to Jessica – and occasionally Thomas – in the second person:

Your motive for wanting to flee must be scrutinized.

I am all for experimenting with point of views…when done well. This is far from well done.
Why make objects the subject of your phrases?

His glass of water is procured. Then the green phone icon is touched.

It doesn’t sound edgy. It sounds ridiculous.

“I’ll get it,” he is told.

The buzzer is pressed for Apartment 4c.

These phrases do not build suspense. They do not intrigue or mystify readers. They were just bloody irritating.

Thomas insisted he go up to his room while Thomas paid the check.

This one phrase puzzled me. I can’t believe that no one picked up on it. It sounds super odd. ‘Thomas tells his friend x to go to his room while Thomas pays’….what in the hell?!

The Tylenol is in the medicine cabinet, but tucked behind a box containing a new skin-care cream. More than a cursory glance will be necessary to locate it.

Really? Again with these superfluous phrases? And who even thinks like that? She really does come across as being a robot.

3) Special mention of those infamous “moral issues”:

He could be so committed to his job that he finds it hard to turn off, kind of like the way I’m beginning to find it difficult to stop thinking about moral issues.

Oh yeah. Those ‘moral issues’ keeping me up at night…
Don’t be fooled. This book is not concerned with an exploration of ethics & morality. This book cares about the exaggerated and “dangerous” relationship between two beautiful women who believe that they are in a Bond film. The ‘tension’ between the two is so oddly contrived and their interactions are beyond credible.
The so called ‘art’ of seduction and flirting are the novel’s main concern.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This book in my opinion is rather trashy. I don’t enjoy writing those words but that is what I have come to believe after wasting hours of my life on it. I kept hoping that it would at least provide some sort of twist that would make up for the horrid writing…but no.
I am not saying that the authors are not capable of writing, I believe that most people could probably write a decent piece of fiction, but this is indeed the most badly written book I have ever come across.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS

Stoner by John Williams

Initially I found the seemingly unassuming prose of Stoner to be full of insight. The very first page coldly announces the eponymous protagonist’s death, and I was drawn in by the unromantic story.
The novel focuses on William Stoner’s life: his rather miserable marriage to Edith as well as his studies and his academic career. Urged by his father to enrol to agriculture school, Stoner begins studying at the University of Missouri were his simple and lacklustre existence is changed by a the introduction of literature into his life. His passion is such that he decides not to return to his parents farm, opting instead to continue his studies. He meets and marries Edith, and this ‘happy union’ soon reveals to be a deeply unhappy one, which shouldn’t be that surprising since from the very start Edith was a bit of cypher. She passively accepts Stoner’s offer of marriage. As time goes by her motivations and her cruelties seemed – for the most part – irrational. John Williams paints a depressing yet somehow realistic portrait of marriage. Petty arguments, vendettas, annoyances, all abound in the relationship between Stoner and his wife.
Stoner’s decision to remain at the University during WWI rises interesting question. His reputation suffers but we are told clearly that his actions were not the ones of a coward. His love for literature and teaching is such that Stoner needs to stay at the University. Stoner acts in a similar manner when he approaches the age of retirement.
I enjoy reading about Stoner’s love for his profession. However, I found the whole situation with Professor Hollis Lomax and Charles Walker to be almost unbearable. I was frustrated at the entire situation and I was uninterested in this prolonged animosity. Both Stoner’s wife and his daughter were incredibly dreary. Not only I did not warm up to their temperaments, but I felt dubious about the reasoning behind their actions. They walked the line between seeming realistic and being stereotypes of a neurotic woman…
The initial chapters, when Stoner starts his studies, promised so much more that this. While I enjoy John Williams’ plain style, I did not feel involved by the storyline or the characters. I might have appreciated the down to earth look at a regular man’s life but I read about Stoner’s life with growing disenchantment.

My rating: 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads