Big Little Lies

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I will be moving across the country soon, so I have begun to really look at my bookshelf, book buying habits, and the books that have been on my To Be Read list for ages. All this led to me reading Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty because it has been on my shelf for way too long. This book got a lot of buzz a handful of years ago when it came out, but since then the hype has died down. Is it still worth a read? In my opinion, sure it does, but I don’t think it is anything particularly special.

The book begins with the knowledge that someone has been murdered. We follow Madeline, Celeste, and Jane through the events leading up to the death. Madeline is an outspoken woman who lives in the same town as her ex-husband and his new, younger wife. Coincidentally, Madeline’s youngest daughter is attending the same kindergarten as her ex-husband’s daughter. Celeste is a beautiful woman who appears to have a perfect marriage to a very rich man. Celeste and her husband have twin boys who also attend the same kindergarten. Lastly, there is Jane. Jane is the new and mysterious single mom whose son is attending the same school. During the kindergarten orientation, Jane’s son is accused of assaulting another student, which turns nearly all of the other kindergarten moms, except for Celeste and Madeline, against her. The drama intensifies as Madeline, Celeste, and Jane deal with the residents of their small town and their personal issues within their families.

It was a nice change to read something other than fantasy or science fiction, and this was a very fast read for me, but it also didn’t capture my interest that much. The book opens with a murder at an after-school function, and the rest of the novel covers the events that led up to that fateful night. It deals with themes of motherhood, family, domestic abuse, identity, and feminism, but it is very focused on middle to upper class white moms and their often petty problems. I am of course not belittling the domestic violence in the book, but most disagreements except the domestic abuse felt shallow and trivial. I kept picturing all of these “Karens” squabbling over misunderstandings that could be solved with communication, and they often spent their time inventing their own crusades and drama to get caught up in. However, the descriptions and inner monologues of the characters impacted by domestic abuse resonated with me. I feel as if I have recovered from my own experiences with domestic abuse, but I still found myself becoming emotional at times. If you’ve recently been through trauma, it could be a little upsetting.

Despite how much I might have disliked some of the pettiness of the characters, the main three women were well developed, if not always likable. And even if I disagreed with them, the decisions made by the characters aligned with their personalities and motives. I can see real-life competitive moms act the same way as these characters. The kids were also written well. It was clear that the children were often unconcerned about their parents’ drama and cared about only what applied to them, but the kids were also not as blind to their parents’ actions and feelings as their parents might have believed, much like real children. One thing I really liked about the characterization and multiple perspectives was that, for example, Character 1 might wear something she thought was beautiful, but Character 2 in the next chapter would make a passing comment that what Character 1 was wearing was ridiculous or that they were secretly jealous of Character 1’s style. Throughout the novel there are also short interviews with other moms and townspeople who all have different perspectives of the same event. This gave the reader hints, provided more characterization, and it was often funny.

So, my verdict is 3 out of 5 stars. Big Little Lies was like reality TV. It wasn’t extremely deep, but it was entertaining and easy/fast to consume. It certainly isn’t a diverse read, which makes it feel a little dated by today’s standards, but it does offer some good discussion on female camaraderie and how domestic abuse can be hidden very well by those involved.

Mira Corpora

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This was a weird one. I keep seeing a specific line associated with this book everywhere. This novel is supposedly “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories.” That alone got my attention. I am not a big fan of coming-of-age stories any more, but that’s a unique way to sell your book.

Mira Corpora is a fantastical autobiography. Some of it might be true, but there’s probably at least a little extra magic and drama thrown in. It is written as if the author, Jeff Jackson, went through everything, but it is also implied that some things are made up. I would put aside guessing what is true and what isn’t while you read the novel. Just enjoy the wild ride. It is dark, heartbreaking, and haunting. There are homeless feral children, a missing rock star, and a boy who seeks to find himself by himself.

Mira Corpora is not an enjoyable read in the same way that A River in Darkness is not “fun” to read. At least some of Mira Corpora really happened, and Jeff Jackson is just a kid throughout most of the book. There are some terrible things that happen to him, so I’ll just say that a broad trigger warning is probably needed for this one. If you can get past poor Jeff’s trials, it has a very interesting but meandering plot. Parts were surreal and felt like a drug-induced haze. Other parts are just tragic. The main character’s growth is easy to see. There are part or section headings that tell how old he is, but beyond his age, he slowly becomes more self assured and confident, while the earlier sections have a touch more innocence and child-like wonder.

I’ve really never read anything quite like this, so I am having a lot of trouble reviewing it. Think of something like Lord of the Flies, but with one kid trying to survive, some untrustworthy adults in our often strange and unforgiving society, and scenes that almost make you feel high but also sad. If you’re looking for something truly different and you want a book that is “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories,” this might be for you. At the very least, the novel made me want to know more about the author’s life. Three out of five stars for Mira Corpora, mainly because there’s a lot to digest, and it was a bit too dark for my mood when I read it.

The Vegetarian

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The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize for 2016, so that’s pretty good. And, in my humble opinion, it is a pretty good book. It’s also pretty damn weird.

Yeong-hye has suddenly decided that she is a vegetarian. When asked why she wants to become a vegetarian, she only responds with the answer, “I had a dream.” Her family and husband greatly disapprove of her change in diet, not only because they are worried about her health and weight loss, but they also dislike Yeong-hye’s strange, distant demeanor. Yeong-hye disobeys her family and societal norms in an attempt to live her life the way she chooses.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts. The first part is from Yeong-hye’s husband’s perspective as he notices her behavior changing. The second part is from Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s perspective as he struggles with his marriage to Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, and his career in art. The final part is from In-hye’s perspective as her own life unravels and her sister become more unstable. Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister all focus on Yeong-hye in their respective sections, but we see parts of their own lives and personalities through their reactions toward Yeong-hye. Interestingly, we barely see Yeong-hye’s own perspective, despite the novel being all about her. In her husband’s section we do see a few paragraphs in which Yeong-hye describes her dreams and her feelings associated with them, but that’s it. Because of this narrative choice, we can see that Yeong-hye is viewed very harshly by everyone around her. Those closest to her probably judge her even more harshly than society does.

I’ve heard many people say in reviews that the whole plot of the novel is an allegory. It is true that you can read multiple meanings into the story itself. On the surface, the plot is just a bit strange. Yeong-hye, if she is truly committed to vegetarianism, would not be losing a lot of weight and looking unhealthy. You can be a healthy vegan or vegetarian, of course. So, what is the story trying to say beneath the surface? I hesitate to put my own interpretation of the deeper meaning out there because it might spoil something if you haven’t read the novel, but various reviews have said the novel is about society’s view of women, feminism in general, South Korean families and culture, mental health, marital happiness, and art to name a few. This is a tiny (less than 200 page) book with a lot going on inside of it. I’ll throw out a general warning that the novel also talks about sex and rape, and sometimes the descriptions are a bit weird and surreal.

At the end of the day, I would recommend this title. It is worth reading for the conversation it creates about the aforementioned topics alone. The Vegetarian reminds me of a slightly more realistic Haruki Murakami novel with a bit more sex and more focus on female characters. The Vegetarian is an interesting experience, and readers who love literary fiction would likely enjoy it.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

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To be honest, I am little afraid to review this book. But, if you’re reading this, then I must have posted it! All you have to do is go to the Goodreads page for this book to see why I am shying away from this review. You’ll see words like pedophilia and rape. This book involves a relationship with a man in his twenties and a girl who meets him when she is only eight years old. It is not quite what you might think, but if that bothers you (rightly so, might I add), then do not read this book.

Wavonna “Wavy” Quin is the daughter of a meth dealer. Her father is either selling meth or is out with women other than his wife. Wavy’s mother is stoned out of her mind most of the time. When she is awake, she is abusive. selfish, and neglectful to her children. Wavy must fend for herself at a very young age, and she is the only person responsible for her little brother’s upbringing. At the age of eight, she finds Kellen, her father’s mechanic, bleeding and laying on the side of the road after a motorcycle crash. Wavy saves him, and after that night, he tries to make her life better by taking care of her and her brother. As the years go by, it is evident that Kellen and teenage Wavy have a mutual affection for each other, despite their age difference. Wavy’s family, friends, and extended family all become involved in a whirlwind drama with drugs, death, and a very strange love story.

Everything else aside, the book is written well. The plot had me turning pages, the characters sprang to life, and at the end, I cried. Some chapters were narrated by characters other than Wavy and Kellen, so there were multiple viewpoints of the same events. This made me see the relationship between Wavy and Kellen from different angles. It also served to give the reader a view of how much the two actually care about each other, but there could also be room for some discussion on the reliability of the narrators, especially Wavy and Kellen. The characters were great though! They felt realistic, they made mistakes, and their actions/motives felt true to their characters.

I have seen some reviews that say that Kellen groomed Wavy from a young age because he wanted a sexual relationship with her. According to some, he helped her and gained her trust to eventually seduce her. Though that could very easily happen in a real-life scenario, I do not believe it is the case in this novel. Kellen is not attracted to little girls in general. He has other, albeit brief, relations with women his age and older, and he likes pretty “vanilla” pornography. Kellen struggles with his feelings for Wavy because he knows it is wrong. But, as she grows older, their feelings stay the same. When Wavy was over the age of consent, I definitely felt better about the relationship. I still rooted for Wavy and Kellen to have a happy ending together, but despite all that, it still felt weird at times. Despite that, I still liked the book.

Maybe that makes me a bad person. I can certainly see why people dislike this book and other books like it (side note– I have never read Lolita). I think taking advantage of children is more than terrible, but if you’re two consenting adults, I could not care less what you do. Maybe Wavy was taken advantage of in some ways, but I also believe that Kellen and Wavy helped each other a lot. That, I think, is the point of the novel. Life is hard. It sucks. People that you should be able to trust can be awful. It is very important to have some kind of family support. I am not trying to sway anyone to read something that makes them uncomfortable, and I am certainly not defending pedophilia of any description or degree. I just think the novel has a lot more to offer than the draw of a shocking and taboo relationship. I also think that it should not be judged solely because of the controversy. Reading with an open mind can create discussion, and that is honestly what interests me the most about such a strangely touching narrative like this one.

The Heaven of Animals

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This is a great collection, but it is very, very sad. I got this book at a bookstore’s going out of business sale for super cheap and all I knew going in was that it was supposed to be good and from the title I thought it would be about animals or animalistic qualities in people. Something of that sort. While animals do appear in most (all?) of the stories I would say that the most prevalent theme in the collection is grief. And maybe that is the point? In one story a character yells out something like, “animals don’t mourn!”

I think I made the mistake of reading this collection in about two sittings. The amount of death and just plain sadness really got to me. I teared up a few times, but by the end I felt emotionally exhausted. I guess my other mistake was reading this so soon after the perpetual tragedy that is Brothers… Still, I really enjoyed these stories. Most were memorable and stood out well, but there were a few (mainly the very short ones) that could have been left out without me missing them. I do think that the narrative voices sometimes ran together. Quite a few of the stories feature a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man dealing with the aftermath of something bad that happened to him. This got a little tiring and when a story was told from a woman’s point of view I was surprised, but found very little difference in the feel of the narration.

I would definitely recommend this collection though. Poissant often writes with a dry, sarcastic tone which I found enjoyable. It helps to ease the sadness many of the topics in this collection. He writes about relationships ending, losing loved ones old and young, and about making up for lost time. I would not suggest reading the collection all at once, but if you want to laugh, cry, and really think about life– pick this up.

Homesick for Another World

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If you’re at all interested in this book then you have probably already heard it is full of nasty characters. And by “nasty” I don’t necessarily mean bad. I have not yet read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel Eileen, but I recently bought it after reading this collection. And though Eileen is marketed as thriller I have heard that it is much more of a character study– which is exactly what this collection of stories is as well.

Homesick for Another World contains fourteen short stories, but nothing much happens in them. In fact, many end with unsatisfying or nonexistent resolutions. Stories like these have a special place in my heart, but I know there are quite a few people who dislike them. The reason I like them is that each story shows a glimpse of a character’s life. If someone glimpsed my life for a period of days or weeks I am sure there would be many loose threads that would be unable to reach an end in such a short amount of time. Moshfegh’s stories peek into the lives of her characters, we watch them for a bit, and then we both go on our way. This, to me, makes them feel like real people with an ongoing existence.

To further add to that sense of realism, Moshfegh does not shy away from the nasty parts of humanity. She discusses sexual fetishes, bodily functions, and a whole host of dark thoughts and emotions we might experience daily. There were a few times when I read a characters’ thoughts and realized I was repulsed and yet I’ve at least briefly thought on a similar wavelength. It is unsettling to relate to such horrible characters, but I began asking myself if they are truly horrible people or do I only view them as horrible because I am inside their heads? Outwardly, they may be able to appear normal in society– just like me or the person next to me on the bus– and yet in the safety of their minds they might house the most unsettling thoughts and desires. Moshfegh forces readers to bring light to these inner dark places.

Swimming Lessons

SLbyCFFlora and Nan’s mother, Ingrid, disappeared many years ago. The story is that she drowned, but Ingrid was a great swimmer and her body was never found. Did she leave her family behind? Did she commit suicide? The girls’ father injures himself after believing he saw Ingrid. Flora and Nan come to his aid and come seeking answers, but this turn of events creates many more questions than before.

First, I’m going to admit that I have had a terrible time reading this book, but not because the book is bad. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller is a good book. Good, but it didn’t blow me away- which might easily be my own fault. I’ve been very busy the past few months and I’ve gotten myself in a reading slump. I tried to read this book a month ago and put it down, but I hate doing that so I’ve been pushing myself to finish it. So, perhaps that is my biggest problem here.

Swimming Lessons is an interesting mystery that is half told in third person narration and half told in Ingrid’s letters that she left behind. This is an interesting way to tell the story of her family. Ingrid’s letters give backstory and help provide clues while the “present day” sections focus on the aftermath of Ingrid’s disappearance. Ingrid’s letters were my favorite part. Her story is interesting- sometimes scandalous and other times you feel for her- her voice is dry but humorous, and I found her much more interesting than her daughters. The other characters had potential, but I felt they weren’t utilized quite enough to be very colorful.

I would say that I liked this novel, but for a mystery I read it very slowly. I wasn’t compelled to keep turning the pages. As a family drama I think it works much better. Perhaps I expected something different from what it is.

This Is How It Always Is

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I received this as an Advance Reader Copy (releasing January 24th 2017) from a Goodreads giveaway so take all my opinions and observations with a larger grain of salt than usual.

This is a story about a family with five sons. One of the sons becomes a daughter. Yes, this is a story about a young trans child. Apparently the author’s own child is trans so she has some good experience to write from. I have friends who are trans and even though they have shared their stories with me it is difficult for me to fully comprehend their struggles. This novel gives voice to a lot of the complications of growing up trans, having a trans sibling, or raising a trans child. The novel is unflinching and covers so many topics and concerns. It is also well written, entertaining, heartwarming, and just a damn good book.

Beyond that I don’t have much else to say about the book itself. The characters are developed and the plot hits you in the gut with feelings. No matter who you are or what knowledge or relationship you have with the trans community, I think you can get something out of this book. I don’t feel qualified to make judgements about how realistically it portrays being trans or anything of that nature, but I will say that I enjoyed it and I feel like I gained a new level of understanding. I would highly recommend picking this one up.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

tusolbykjWell, this is a weird one. This novel tells the story of our unnamed narrator who wants to be a writer, but he always loses his manuscripts. We follow his life from when he was a child of a single mother being parented by near strangers to his life of ups and downs after college.

This book plays with truth so much that I it is hard to tell what is real and what is fiction. Maybe that is the point? This is supposedly a biography of the narrator, but in the second part of the book it almost starts over. The timeline moves forward, but some of the details from events we learned about in the first half have changed. This fictional biography is very interesting and the cast of characters are fleshed out and realistic even though they morph throughout the novel. Is the second or first half true? Neither? Both?

I actually really enjoyed this, but it makes my head spin just thinking about it. It is worth a read just to experience the twists and turns… and maybe someone else can make heads or tails of it better than I can. I’m just guessing, but I think the point is that memory is fallible and the truth of our memories can be altered even without us actively trying to do so. Truth is also relative and hard to hold on to- just like time and apparently the manuscripts by our narrator.

Behold the Dreamers

btdbyimJende and Neni Jonga are emigrants Cameroon who have come to America for a chance at a better life for their family. The novel takes place around the year 2007 and amid the recession. The Jongas come to America with big dreams, but what are they willing to do to keep their hope afloat?

This is an important and entertaining novel. I’m sure we have all read books that deal with immigration of some sort, but I have not read many that deal with a more modern immigrant experience. It opened my eyes to how much hope people still have in America. We, as Americans, may not be happy with our country as it is now, but we should be thankful for what we do have. There are some wonderfully flawed and realistic characters that had me laughing and crying along with them. This book shows just how imperfect this country and its people are, but that is not always a bad thing.

This book also highlights how much of a pain it can be to immigrate to America. The Jongas are honest people that just want a better life. They are no different than any American with a dream. Between the financial crisis, racism, and governmental hoop-jumping, the Jongas must go through so much to live a life many Americans would never want. This novel made me thankful for what I have and allowed me to put myself in an immigrant’s shoes.