Book Review: Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

3 out of 5 stars for Eileen, an intriguing yet very weird bookeileen

I will say this about houses. Those perfect neat colonials I’d passed earlier that evening on my way through X-ville are the death masks of normal people. Nobody is really so orderly, so perfect. To have a house like that says more about what’s wrong with you than any decrepit dump. Those people with perfect houses are simply obsessed with death.

The novel, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, has received a lot of attention in the last year. I was intrigued by the premise of this book. It follows the story of Eileen Dunlop, a twenty-four-year-old woman who lives alone with her alcoholic father and works at a boys’ prison. An older Eileen is the narrator of the story and looks back at events that passed in the week around Christmas in the 1960s. While Eileen’s external life is drab and uneventful, her inner life is complex as she is plagued by thoughts of sexual desire, remorse, depression, and self-loathing. Her outward life changes dramatically when she meets Rebecca. Eileen narrates the events that unfold after meeting Rebecca, which, within the course of one week, put her on a drastically different life path.

Eileen is full of self-loathing, but she is also a loathsome character. It is never really clear how much we, as readers, should trust the story that Eileen is telling us. Nevertheless, she paints herself as a self-absorbed twenty-four-year-old, while also assuring the reader that in her later life she became well-adjusted. I opened my review with a quote that I think exemplifies one of the main themes of the book. It explores the question of what is under the surface, what is repressed or hidden. It is a book that is at times repugnant. Eileen is obsessed with the biological functions of her body, her digestive system, her waste—in short, all that occurs under the surface of her body. In a similar way, she gives the reader a surface story, one the reader must speculate about and read into.

On the whole, this was an interesting read. It is not for the squeamish. If you can’t deal with dark themes or are easily taken aback by grotesque imagery or situations, I would pass over this one. If you like books that push the boundaries of what is “acceptable” to explore deeper themes and questions, give this one a go! I found myself thinking about it a lot in the days after I read it. It’s one that will stick with you for a while after you read it.

My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Vintage for helping me get a copy of this book.

Book Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

A solid 4 out of 5 stars. thenix

“We are more politically fanatical than ever before, more religiously zealous, more rigid in our thinking, less capable of empathy. The way we see the world is totalizing and unbreakable. We are completely avoiding the problems that diversity and worldwide communication imply. Thus, nobody cares about antique ideas like true or false.”

Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix was one of my favorite reads of 2016. The novel follows two story lines: Samuel’s and his mother Faye’s. Samuel’s story is set in present day. It details his rather sad life as a burnt-out college professor, an online fantasy game addict, and a stalled writer. Faye’s story is mostly set in 1960s Chicago and details her involvement in the counterculture movement.

Samuel’s mother, Faye Andreson, left him and his father when Samuel was a child. She recently committed a politically-motivated crime against a senator, bringing her back into Samuel’s life and also exposing her past political activism. In a last effort to save his writing career, Samuel agrees to write a book about his mother, a woman he actually barely knows but starts to learn more about as he digs further into his research for the book. His publisher agrees to give Samuel this one last chance because he sees the possibility of cashing in on Faye’s recent fame. Samuel’s acceptance of the book assignment sets him on a path that brings him back into contact with his mother and forces him to address issues that have plagued him since even before she abandoned him. Faye’s story is also a self-searching one. As an adult, Faye still seems to be searching for a sense of identity. It takes bringing Samuel and Faye back together, as well as some further soul-searching, to bring Faye the closure that her entire family has so desperately been seeking for generations.

“But Faye’s opinion is that sometimes a crisis is not really a crisis at all—just a new beginning. Because one thing she’s learned through all this is that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid.”

Of the two story lines, I enjoyed Faye’s much more than I did Samuel’s. Samuel’s did have some funny and emotionally touching parts, but I just loved the 1960s Chicago environment that Hill so vividly illustrated. In addition to being beautifully written, the novel holds much relevance in our current climate. It speaks to fundamental issues about the media, influence, and facts and how all of these can be manipulated to achieve different ends.

“That no such plans were ever actually considered was irrelevant. He had learned something important: What was printed became the truth.”

I also really enjoyed the important role that literature played in this novel. Young Faye is an admirer of the poet Allen Ginsberg. She decides to attend the University of Illinois in Chicago because she heard that Ginsberg will be a visiting professor. Hill intersperses lines from Ginsberg’s poetry throughout the book and I felt like this really added to the message. In this way, and in his mixing of historical fact and fiction, Hill gives substance to Faye’s story and Samuel’s story and makes them resonate with historical and present reality.

“[i]f you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a fictional escape that still holds relevance in the current climate. If you want to learn about the 1960s counterculture movement, this is a fascinating read. If you’d like to think about how media has been and is being manipulated this is an excellent book to inspire critical thinking.

My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for helping me get a copy of this book.

Book Review: The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace

300758022.5 out of 5 stars

she can’t sit here / with us anymore / & i’m sure we can all feel / the heaviness of her absence, / but even when every chair is taken / & everyone else has to stand, / it still feels like there will always be a space for her. / -your energy cannot be destroyed.

This was a very quick read. It was very easy to finish in one sitting, but this points to one of the big issues I had with this book. When I read a poem, and especially when I read a poetry collection, I expect to be compelled to reflect. I expect a good poetry collection to be something I am stuck in for days or weeks, something I keep thinking about and coming back to. This was definitely not that kind of poetry collection. The poems are more like paragraphs chopped into one or two-word increments and assembled to look like a stanza. Moreover, there is too little poetic usage of language in my opinion. This makes the themes come across as trite in some instances.

I was pretty excited to read this collection when I read the synopsis and heard some positive things about it. I liked the fairytale inspiration behind it and was expecting vivid, dreamy poems with a feminist tint. The themes of the collection are worthy and definitely need to be discussed, but I felt like the writing wasn’t skillful enough to do the themes justice or to really reach me as a reader on an emotional level. This felt like a poetry collection by a teenager and for a teenager. There is nothing at all wrong with that, though, and I think a teenage reader might get more out of this book than I did. There are some good messages about loving yourself and about denouncing rape culture. The fourth and final part of the collection titled “& You” is pretty motivational and probably just what some teenagers need to hear.

emily— / i often / find myself / wondering / if you are still / out there / trying to find / yourself by / candlelight. / is sylvia there / beside you, / guiding / the way with / the old / brag / of her / beating / heart? / does / virginia / have / a room / all her own? / & what about / harriet / & anne / & harper? / does / a woman / ever / find / her peace?

I’ve interspersed some excerpts that reached me the most. I would recommend this book to young readers that aren’t quite sure about poetry. It’s a quick read to give you a taste and to make you think about some important issues (body image, rape culture, self-love/care).

My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for helping me get a copy of this book.

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

 

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A photo from my Instagram: ohthisbook

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5

 

Many people were touting Emma Cline’s The Girls as the “it” book of the summer. I saw it front and center in nearly every bookshop I went into over the summer. Reviews of this book were popping up everywhere on Goodreads, Instagram, and YouTube—rather mixed reviews, actually, which was a factor in why I waited so long to pick it up.
When I saw that this book was available to request on NetGalley I decided to just go for it. I’m so glad I did. What an amazing talent this young author is. If people were starkly divided over this book, then I am definitely in the “loved it” camp. I highlighted so many passages that really struck me, so I’ll try to be selective and intersperse only my favorites throughout this review.

The novel is loosely inspired by the Manson Family, the 1960s commune in California whose members were responsible for the brutal killings of nine people, including the well-known actress Sharon Tate. The Girls is told through the voice of Evie Boyd, who at the age of fourteen as an only child in a recently-divorced family, gets swept up into a commune-like lifestyle on the ranch. The leader of the commune is Russell, a man who functions as a sort of Christ-figure for the followers at the ranch, but Suzanne is perhaps the second-most influential figure in their community.

Evie sees Suzanne for the first time in a park and, although they only lock eyes for a few seconds, Evie is magnetically drawn to her. Evie and Suzanne don’t speak to each other during that first encounter, but it seems fated that their paths will cross again. Evie is fascinated by the girls she saw in the park, but her life isn’t really impacted by them until they come across Evie on the side of the road with her broken-down bicycle and offer to give her a ride. Evie goes along with them to the ranch and from that night on, her life begins to slide further and further out of her control.

The story is fascinating in its own right, but what really made this book so exceptional for me was the writing style. Cline’s descriptions are so rich and so original that they really give a fresh feel to this book. She explains emotions in an unconventional way which shines a light on human behavior from a different angle. For me, this resulted in striking truths which seemed to just shine through Evie’s story–truths that you don’t ever have to have participated in a commune or cult to understand.

“I knew how easily it could happen, the past at hand, like the helpless cognitive slip of an optical illusion. The tone of a day linked to some particular item: my mother’s chiffon scarf, the humidity of a cut pumpkin. Certain patterns of shade. Even the flash of sunlight on the hood of a white car could cause a momentary ripple in me, allowing a slim space of return. I’d seen old Yardley slickers—the makeup now just a waxy crumble—sell for almost one hundred dollars on the Internet. So grown women could smell it again, that chemical, flowery fug. That’s how badly people wanted it—to know that their lives had happened, that the person they once had been still existed inside of them.”

It’s a novel about insecurities, particularly female insecurities. It’s about patriarchal society and how power is wielded over the impressionable, particularly impressionable young women. Cline tells Evie Boyd’s story, but Evie’s story is one that so many teenage girls will find familiar. The second-guessing of one’s actions, one’s words. The regret at saying something silly. The desire to fit in, the desire to be perceived as older than one actually is.

At the heart of this novel is the act of telling lies–lies that girls tell themselves about boys, lies that girls tell themselves to satiate a desire to belong, a desire to be wanted. Compromises and sacrifices that girls make to achieve a sense of inclusion and to be admired (or just to convince themselves of these things). It is also about manipulation and about transitioning from the manipulated to the manipulator, from victim to abuser.

“Mitch studied me with a questioning, smug smile. Men did it so easily, that immediate parceling of value. And how they seemed to want you to collude on your own judgment.”

Although most of the story focuses on the events of Evie’s life as a fourteen-year-old girl under the influence of the ranch and its residents, there are also passages in which Evie talks about the present. I think what these sections make clear about the message the book tries to convey is that the sort of manipulative behavior that happens in a cult-like environment is not merely confined to that physical place or time in the past, but also carries on in the present day and is part of human behavior on a more general level, especially the unhealthy male-female dynamic that still exists in our society. We get a sense of this when Julian, the son of one of Evie’s friends, seems to manipulate his girlfriend and even tries to intimidate Evie. Evie seems to be able to stand up to this type of behavior more as an adult, but we see how Julian’s girlfriend, Sasha, is so easily manipulated and bows to Julian’s control over her, sacrificing her own dignity in the act.

I flew through this book in the matter of a few days. I couldn’t stop reading it. It engulfed me. It haunted my thoughts and still continues to do so. I recommend this book to anyone that is interested in thinking about human behavior, how people deal with abuse, how people lie to themselves in order to retain a sense of love or belonging. I also recommend this if you’re just looking for a fresh voice in literature. Cline is a young author (only 27), and writes beautifully. My only (small) complaint is that she does seem to reuse certain expressions throughout the novel and it can start to seem a bit repetitive. I was able to overlook this without any issue though because she totally makes up for this in the originality of her descriptions.

My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Vintage for helping me get a copy of this book.

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

matilda-cover4 out of 5 stars

This was such a cute book. I am not sure how I actually made it to adulthood without ever having read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but I somehow did. Matilda was one of my favorite films when I was a child, so it was fun to revisit the story through the original source.

I am sure almost everyone is familiar with the story—Matilda, neglected wonder-kid, learns to read at a very young age and seeks refuge in books to escape her horrid family. She reads everything her local library has to offer from Dickens, to Hemingway, to Conrad. Although Matilda’s family present substantial obstacles in the story, she doesn’t meet her real nemesis until she starts school at Crunchem Hall and first encounters Miss Trunchbull. The description of The Trunchbull was superb and made me laugh out loud:

“Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes. And as for her clothes . . . they were, to say the least, extremely odd.”

Aside from Matilda, Miss Honey was one of my favorite characters in the book. In comparison with the film, I felt that Miss Honey was a bit more assertive in the book. From what I remember of the film, she was quite a sweet and meek character, but in the book, she stands up to Matilda’s parents and is less of a shrinking violet than I thought she would be.

It’s easy to see why Dahl’s books are classic children’s literature. His descriptions have that absurd and silly quality that children really enjoy. I like the fact that Matilda seems to know no limitations. I really like the fact that Matilda is an exceptional and self-assured female character. She is unapologetic for her intelligence without being boastful. I think those are really good traits for a character to possess in a children’s book, especially when said character is the heroine.

I really enjoyed reading this. It was a nice escape in the evenings and brought many smiles to my face. If you have some little ones in your life who are in need of gifts, I think Dahl’s books are just as enjoyable today as they were 25 years ago.

Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

5 out of 5 stars

 

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A photo from my Instagram: ohthisbook.

The title was the first thing to catch my attention with this book. The beautiful cover was the second. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the story was just as original as the title and just as beautiful as the cover.

 

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s debut novel The Smell of Other People’s Houses follows various story lines of young people growing up in 1970s Alaska. Each chapter has a different narrator and is dedicated to a different story line. There are four narrators in total. As the novel progresses, Hitchcock subtly weaves the stories together so that the characters’ lives, problems, and dreams begin to intersect. The interweaving of the stories is done beautifully. As a reader, I found it really enjoyable to pick up on the subtle interconnections between the characters and their stories.

I also particularly appreciated the unusual setting of this story, and the focus on the different native cultures in Alaska was really interesting and enlightening. It seems that native culture and personal origins are really essential elements that greatly influence the lives of these young people. Some wish to get away from their roots, while others long to be able to find theirs. The portrayal of the cultural environment is complex. It is neither entirely positive nor entirely negative, and Hitchcock does a beautiful job of demonstrating the legacy of culture as it is passed on from generation to generation.

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Although the book could be considered a YA novel, I don’t feel that the YA label is appropriate for this book. It is much more than just a YA book. This is more a coming-of-age story. Nearly everyone in the book has a moment of clarity that leads to a sort of emotional or personal evolution. The book follows Ruth’s story particularly closely and there are multiple moving moments as she deals with exceptional hardship at a very young age. There were so many passages in this book that went straight to my heart. The romantic relationships are not of the typical sappy or supernatural YA variety. Romance is not the focus of this book, and where it does appear, it exists in small and believable doses. It is much more about love on a familial level, even a human level.

Hitchcock writes in a beautiful style. The writing is not complicated, but there are instances where she puts words together in a singularly beautiful way. She is skilled at writing believable characters with very different personalities. Bunny and Lily are fun-loving and carefree, while the older characters such as Dumpling, Alyce, and Ruth show real emotional complexity as they attempt to reconcile their own dreams with reality and with their families’ expectations.

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The book was a very quick read. My ebook copy was 272 pages long, but it read very quickly. On the whole, I really loved this book. I would recommend this for people who are looking for a book that provides an escape to a world that is most likely far removed from their own. If you want to read about native culture, about remote areas, or are looking for a particularly unique coming-of-age story, I highly recommend you give this book a try.

I was provided a Netgalley review copy of this ebook by Faber & Faber in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

4 out of 5 stars

From the moment I started reading Alias Grace it was like putting on a favorite old sweater. Margaret Atwood’s writing just does it for me. Alias Grace is the fourth book by Atwood I’ve read, and it only made me want to go out and buy all the others and read nothing else for the next months. I wouldn’t say that this is my favorite novel by Atwood–I think that special place in my heart belongs to The Handmaid’s Tale orThe Blind Assassin–but it is certainly written in that characteristic Atwood style that I love so much.

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The novel is based on a true crime story that took place in the mid-nineteenth century in Canada. Grace Marks, alias Mary Whitney, was accused together with her alleged lover, James McDermott, to have violently murdered Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Although Grace professed during the trials to being unable to remember having committed the murders, she was still convicted of the crime. McDermott was sentenced to death, and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

Grace appears to be a mild-mannered woman and is a trusted inmate in the prison, and is even allowed to work as a servant in the governor’s house. Although she is largely trusted, she battles with mental illness and is intermittently admitted as a mental patient throughout her time in prison. Dr. Jordan is intrigued by her story and comes to interview her in the hopes of getting to the bottom of her memory loss and discovering what truly happened at Mr. Kinnear’s residence on that fateful night.

The true story of Grace Marks remains elusive even today. There is much speculation about whether or not Grace was indeed guilty of murder. Atwood’s Alias Grace does not shed any light on these issues but rather raises questions by drawing on big themes and making Grace perhaps even more enigmatic than before. Atwood subtly places the hardships of women, especially working-class women, before the reader, demonstrating how little choice women had at the time. The novel’s plot revolves heavily around the pervasive occurrences of sexual abuse that seemed to be all too common in Grace’s line of work as a servant in middle- to upper-middle class households.

There is an emphasis on what could be considered traditionally “women’s work”. Grace is interested in sewing, particularly in sewing quilts. The idea of piecing together quilts that tell a sort of story and symbolize something altogether deeper than their beautiful appearance reflects in the telling of Grace’s story to Dr. Jordan. Grace is known for her expert ability to sew–she can sew with remarkably small and nearly undetectable stitches. She is equally as skilled at weaving stories in my opinion. The reader sees that Grace crafts her story deliberately, but yet, Atwood never really lets the reader discover Grace’s truth (at least not as far as I could tell).

Like in many of her other novels, Atwood uses a number of intertextual devices, many of which actually refer to the real-life trial of Grace Marks and Thomas Kinnear. These additions add to the story as a whole and ground the major themes in reality, leaving the reader to reflect not just on the story, but on society in a wider context.

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On the whole, I really enjoyed reading this novel. There is something about Margaret Atwood’s writing that just speaks to my soul. The writing is beautiful, and as is true for all of the historical fiction I’ve read by Atwood, it makes you think deeply. It spurs the reader to not only try to puzzle out what is happening within the pages and to draw links between the various events within the novel, but it also makes you reflect on big issues in society, both historical and contemporary.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to lovers of Atwood. You won’t be disappointed by this one if you’ve enjoyed other historical fiction by Atwood. I also recommend this book for true-crime fans or lovers of gothic fiction. And finally, if you like books that make you think, then definitely go for Alias Grace or another of Atwood’s historical fiction works.