Reading List by Jennie for October through November
I’ve been doing these round-ups every three months, but I realized this round of mini-reviews are longish, so I decided to just do October and November. Also reviewed (with Janine, Sirius and Jayne): Spinning Silver.
The Dark Heart: A True Story of Greed, Murder and an Unlikely Investigator by Joakim Palmkvist
I got this from Amazon First Reads; it was the first time I recalled seeing a true crime book offered as part of the program. I don’t read much true crime; the older I get the more sensitive I am to anything too disturbing or gory. Also, I have a little bit of judgment about the notion of real peoples’ actual deaths as entertainment, so I’m wary of any crime non-fiction that feels at all exploitative or sensationalistic.
The Dark Heart is not exploitative, at least. In the Swedish farming town of Norra Forlosa, eccentric millionaire Goran Lundblad went missing in 2012. His daughter Sara reported that she had argued with him shortly before he disappeared. Lundblad strongly disapproved of Sara’s romance with neighbor Martin Tornblad. Local police investigated, on and off, for several years, but weren’t able to get anywhere.
The author Palmkvist is apparently a well-regarded true crime writer in Sweden, but I found this book less than compelling. Part of it may have been the translation, which felt clunky and oddly conversational/casual in tone. I’m not sure, actually, if that was a translation issue or not, but I’m choosing to believe that it was.
The other, perhaps larger, issue is that the murder is just not that interesting, as murders go. The killer and motive are pretty much exactly as they appear from the beginning, and there’s never even much of an attempt to generate suspense or follow other possible suspects. Instead, a lot of the focus is on a volunteer-run organization called Missing People Sweden, and a woman named Therese Tang who was part of the organization and integral to obtaining a confession and the location of the body of the missing man. Therese is a likable protagonist, but again, just not that interesting, to me at least. The Dark Heart took me a looong time to read, or at least it felt like a long time. I’m giving it a C.
We Were Mothers by Katie Sise
Another Amazon First Read – I’ve been burning through these! I grabbed this one because it sounded like it was of the women’s-suspense/drama ilk I’ve been drawn to for a while now. The story is narrated by four women in a wealthy town in New York state. There’s Cora, the mother of two-year-old twins; her friend Jade, a jewelry designer, Cora’s mother, Sarah, and her neighbor and newish friend, Laurel. The book opens on the twins’ second birthday party, a needlessly elaborate affair to which Cora has invited the “mommy friends” she’s been trying to cultivate.
In turn, we get each woman’s perspective on the party and their own lives. Cora is harried and neurotic; Jade is ambivalent about her husband Jeremy’s desire to start a family. Sarah is bitter and lonely, unable to let go of the husband who left her years before for her close friend. Laurel, who appears to be the sort of effortlessly together woman and mother that Cora wants to become, is filled with some of the same insecurities and fears for her just-grown daughters that Cora herself has, suggesting that the worries of motherhood never really go away. Hanging over the day is the specter of Cora’s sister Maggie, who died on the night of Cora’s engagement party six years before.
The story takes place over only a couple days, but a lot of secrets are revealed and families torn apart in that short period of time. A young woman disappears; infidelity is revealed. One couple has some pretty big secrets they’ve kept from each other (actually, scratch that – more than one couple). And one perfect-seeming marriage hides a very dark and disturbing secret. Also, what exactly did happen to Maggie that night years before?
We Were Mothers was mostly absorbing, but suffered from an odd unevenness for me. At first it felt like the story was set up for a lot of big, meaty secrets to come out. About half or two-thirds of the way through, I started to think that the reality was a lot less dramatic and more mundane (which isn’t a bad thing; it just means it’s a different sort of book). But by the end, a couple of characters went totally off the rails and out of nowhere there were not one but two attempted murders. The mixture of realistic meditations on motherhood with high melodrama (and I like melodrama!) didn’t quite work for me. Still, since the book held my attention, I’m giving it a B.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
This was my now-annual “scary Halloween read.” As usual, I started way too late. I only managed to finish it by Halloween by dint of the fact that this is a short story. There’s not a lot of action (until the end!) but the story manages to be stuffed full of dread and creepy, weighty themes. Spoilers ahead in case you were planning on reading this 160-year-old short story and hadn’t gotten around to it.
I haven’t read much Poe, I don’t think, though Annabel Lee is one of my favorite poems for its lilting rhyme scheme and vivid, if morbid, imagery. I also remember being struck by The Tell-Tale Heart in high school. Anyway, The Fall of the House of Usher is narrated by an unnamed friend who goes to visit Roderick Usher, a cadaverous, hypochondriac weirdo who lives with his dying twin sister Madeline in a decrepit and possibly sentiently evil house that is falling down around them (figuratively, and eventually, literally). Roderick is not the ideal host, being rather gloomy and carrying around with him a sense of existential dread. He also thinks his house is alive, which…okay? I guess? Anyway, Madeline dies and Roderick insists that she be kept in the family tomb for two weeks before being buried, because nothing says “house party” like, “We’re hanging out killing time until we can bury the next-to-last-Usher.” To be fair, the narrator maybe feels that while he’d rather just hit up the local Travel Lodge, it would be churlish not to stay and try to console the increasingly bonkers Roderick.
Events come to a head when Roderick and the narrator stay up one night; Roderick keeps hearing strange noise and insisting that they come from Madeline, who he’s come to believe wasn’t dead when she was put in the tomb. It turns out he’s right. Madeline comes to the bedroom door, bloodied from her escape from the tomb, and falls over dead (for real, this time) on Roderick, who himself instantly dies of fright. This is too much for the narrator (I should say so!), who flees into the night and finds the house behind him crumbling and sinking into the ground.
Was it scary? It didn’t make my heart beat fast, but The Fall of the House of Usher has had a more subtle, lingering effect. The uneasiness and yes, dread (I keep using that word because it’s so accurate) of the story stayed with me; those feelings come up even now, writing this up. The thing about dread is that it seems worse for its very amorphousness. It’s not a killer in a hockey mask chasing you through the woods; it’s the fear that the dead may not be dead and that which shouldn’t be living at all may indeed be alive. I’m giving this an A-.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
I just started reading Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell (I may do a full review of it; so far it’s really interesting). I was thinking about it as I was trying to decide what to say about The Last Man. I looked it up and Ruth was written in 1853; The Last Man was published in 1826. Did the dominant style in English writing really change so much in under three decades?
Of course, that’s not entirely fair. Just because Shelley and Gaskell are English female novelists living in the same century, it’s not necessarily to be expected that their prose styles would be the same or even similar. But I guess this is part of a change I’ve noticed in general in my reading of 19th century English literature – the transition from the Romantics to authors with a more realistic style.
The Last Man is often described as dystopian fiction, and that’s accurate – it does deal with the breakdown of society and the death of, well, pretty much everyone, as a result of plague and other disasters. But it takes a long time to get to the dystopia: the first half of the novel deals with the lives of the characters pre-apocalypse. That’s because, in spite of the fantastic subject matter, The Last Man is highly autobiographical. It’s that aspect alone that kept the book from being pretty much an irredeemable slog for me.
The book is narrated by Lionel Verney, who grows up wild and resentful of Adrian, the Earl of Windsor, for events that happened between their fathers before they were born. Adrian meets Lionel essentially after Lionel attempts to kill him, and because Adrian is a saint, he befriends him. They form a circle with Raymond, an ambitious nobleman, Perdita, Lionel’s sister and Raymond’s eventual wife, and Idris, Adrian’s sister and Lionel’s eventual wife. Stuff happens – political stuff, and interpersonal stuff among the circle (the part where Raymond cheats on Perdita and her inability to forgive him is essentially portrayed as being her fault was particularly interesting to me). Still, Lionel portrays these as halcyon days, and it’s very clearly meant as a representation of the circle of friends that included Mary Shelley, Percy Shelly, Lord Byron, and Clare Claremont, among others. In this version, Lionel is Mary, Adrian is Percy, and Raymond is Lord Byron.
As all of Lionel’s companions slowly succumb to disease or other calamity, he attempts to maintain the spirit of the group that nurtured him, but of course it gets harder and harder. The parallels to Mary Shelley’s own life were almost painfully poignant to read. But the prose!:
With the coming of Raymond was formed the storm that laid waste at one fell blow the gardens of delight and sheltered paths which Adrian fancied that he had secured to himself, as a refuge from defeat and contumely. Raymond, the deliverer of Greece, the graceful soldier, who bore in his mien a tinge of all that, peculiar to her native clime, Evadne cherished as most dear— Raymond was loved by Evadne. Overpowered by her new sensations, she did not pause to examine them, or to regulate her conduct by any sentiments except the tyrannical one which suddenly usurped the empire of her heart. She yielded to its influence, and the too natural consequence in a mind unattuned to soft emotions was, that the attentions of Adrian became distasteful to her. She grew capricious; her gentle conduct towards him was exchanged for asperity and repulsive coldness. When she perceived the wild or pathetic appeal of his expressive countenance, she would relent, and for a while resume her ancient kindness. But these fluctuations shook to its depths the soul of the sensitive youth; he no longer deemed the world subject to him, because he possessed Evadne’s love; he felt in every nerve that the dire storms of the mental universe were about to attack his fragile being, which quivered at the expectation of its advent.
In short: Adrian loves Evadne. Raymond comes to town, and Evadne loves Raymond. Adrian is sad.
Now, if you like prose like this, I have the book for you! I…endured it, but it didn’t help that the damn book is 175,000 words long. And it’s ALL like that.
In the end, what I liked about The Last Man I liked in spite of the writing. I have read several biographies of Mary Shelley and thought I had some idea of what the loss of her husband and her social circle did to her emotionally, and how barren her later years were. But this book is a living testament to her grief and loss, and it has value for that reason. I just found it really had to read.
I don’t remember if Frankenstein was similarly overwritten but I’m pretty sure it was much shorter. My grade for The Last Man is a B-.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
I saw the highly touted movie version of this book this summer and really enjoyed it. The book is a little different and while I still liked it, some of the differences made it less fun than the movie.
The focus in both the book and the movie is the romance between Nicholas Young and Rachel Chu, and how it’s tested when they travel from their home in New York to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. Rachel discovers that Nick is super-wealthy, information that Nick (rather puzzlingly; his blind spot on the issue seems to be Nick’s only character flaw) failed to share ahead of time.
But there are a lot of other characters, some of whom get a bit more attention in the book than the movie: Nick’s elegant cousin Astrid, whose marriage to Michael is on the rocks; his other cousin (I think? the tangled family relationships were hard enough to keep straight when I was actually reading the book) Eddie, a shallow and nasty social climber who has his family under iron control; and Nick’s mother Eleanor and her gaggle of “Bible Study group” friends (Bible Study seems to mostly consist of the women talking about other people, talking about money, and looking at jewelry). There are probably a dozen or two other characters that the reader has to keep track of at least somewhat.
The book had a nastier edge than the movie; at times it was unpleasant to read about. For instance, at the bachelor party for Nick’s friend Colin, their vulgar friend Bernard not only arranges a decadent blowout on a huge boat, but he kicks off the festivities by dragging them to a dog fight. Nick and Colin are both disgusted and quickly leave, but even the short description of the place left a sour taste in my mouth.
In general, there were things that stood out to me in the book that were probably true of the movie as well, but the movie was, again, more fun and frothy, and so it wasn’t as noticeable. There’s a dearth of sympathetic characters: other than Rachel, Nick and Astrid, there are maybe half a dozen or so other likable characters, and a slew of people who are simply awful. Which lead to something else that bugged me: I wasn’t sure at a certain point how I felt as an American reading such a negative portrayal of someone else’s culture. It felt wrong somehow.
Finally, there was something perhaps unintentionally ironic about skewering characters for their obsession with money and designer brands, when every page was filled with lavish details of their excesses and an endless dropping of brand names (many of which I’d never heard of, so I wasn’t even able to be properly impressed).
For a story I’ve now kvetched quite a bit about, I actually liked Crazy Rich Asians more than it would seem. It just wasn’t quite the bubbly cute read I was expecting; it felt darker and meaner to me. That said, I liked Rachel and Nick, and their story felt more compelling to me towards the end of the book. I wasn’t sure I would be interested in the sequels when I was about half-way through this book, but by the end I did decide to pick them up. My grade is a B.