A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

a girl is a half formed thing

Coffee House Press, September 2014

 

The heart cannot be wrung and wrung.

Eimear McBride brings her main character to life with prose so fractured that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing reads a bit like Clockwork Orange. There is no made-up language but McBride uses a combination of Magnetic Poetry and Yahtzee to throw out words in random order with punctuation as an afterthought. Abandon any hope for sentence structure or grammar but, if you can simply read the words, there is a harsh poignant story to be found.

There are no names used in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing but the protagonist is a teenage girl trying to deal with her brother’s brain tumor and his ongoing problems from the surgery that saved his life. He is her dearest companion and she has felt his love since her days in the womb. There is no father and her mother is overwhelmed and sometimes abusive. Her love for this brother burns white hot when she is small but cools as she grows up and moves on to college, while he cannot make a life for himself outside of their mother’s house.

You are behind. You are way behind in this. I see you lagging. I can see you limping off at the back but I’m getting very tired of looking around and in a bit I’ll leave you to the fates.

As his health deteriorates she chooses sexual abuse as her punishment and her body as a sacrifice to a God she doesn’t understand.

This is not a novel for everyone. It is so unique in its construction and technique that its appeal will largely be to those readers who view fiction as art—modern, abstract art. And like that art it requires a great deal of effort to understand. How McBride managed to sustain this narrative for over 200 pages is nothing short of miraculous to me because my reading of the novel left me feeling as if my brain had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. The prose is that painful, sharp, and devastating. The words don’t flow, there is no order, and at times they read like poetry, but largely they require utter concentration and focus to even follow. It is exhausting, grim and bleak, which is the whole point for this girl. She is trapped in her own mind with no real tools to deal with what is an incredibly difficult situation. What McBride gives us is the uncensored, unfiltered contents of her brain pouring onto the page.

In its way the book is revolutionary. I’ve never read anything formatted or styled like this but it takes as much from the reader as it gives, if not more. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is rife with pain, darkness and confusion but there is no doubt about the clarity of McBride’s voice.

Eimear McBride will be reading from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday October 23rd as part of Seattle’s annual Lit Crawl.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Some Luck: A Novel

some luck

Knopf, October 7, 2014

 

Some Luck is the first book in Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy and in it she covers the lives of the Langdons. They are an Iowa farming family and it’s evident by the loving care with which she portrays them that Smiley is happy to return to her roots. In 1920 Walter Langdon is twenty-five and the proud owner of his own farm. He and his wife Rosanna live there with their infant son Frank. What begins with their story in Iowa expands to encompass events and places throughout America and the world. Smiley breaks the novel’s chapters into years and in doing so links the family chain from one generation to the next until 1953.

Rosanna and Walter go on to have four more children after Frank but he is the novel’s cornerstone and the other characters flit by and around him. It is his psychological make-up that gets the greatest attention from Smiley and we quickly learn that his intelligence is equaled by a ferocious will to to do what he wants.

Frank was patient. Nobody thought he was patient…But he had stores of patience they could not understand if there was something he really, really wanted to do. 

This leads to his going to a high school in Chicago, being the first in the family to go to college, and then quitting halfway through to join the Army. While his choices puzzle his family they make perfect sense to him. In his own way, he is as unknowable and uncontrollable as the land—the other key character in Some Luck. For while people are critical to the novel, Smiley always returns to the land.

Some Luck moves with a stately grace that may feel slow or dispassionate to some readers but I found it reflective of the people and their land and appreciated its natural pace. Much of Smiley’s prose in Some Luck is about the smallest things—the paragraphs of Frank’s impressions of the world when only five months old are some of my favorite of the novel. It is this mindset that reinforces how small but concentrated life is on a farm and how well Smiley represents that life. There is no energy or time to be wasted in talking so Some Luck is a very thoughtful novel—literally.  There are no deep, emotional conversations being had but there is no doubt about the depths being felt. The intimacy is in the actions—the joy of plentiful harvests, eating what you’ve grown, giving birth to and raising children, and the grief of the Depression, when farms were left behind because they had been lost. Smiley covers all these and more quietly but beautifully, leaving me looking forward to what happens next.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

At Home with Madame Chic

madame chic

Simon & Schuster, October 7, 2014

 

I read Jennifer Scott’s first book Lessons from Madame Chic and loved her take on the way French women approach beauty and fashion. So much so that I’ve tried to emulate her credo that you only need a ten-piece wardrobe. Granted, I’m doing it because the majority of my clothes are packed in boxes while we are stuck in a small rental house but still…I tried. Fashion aside, Scott is back with At Home with Madame Chic, her take on the French way of life at home. In the book, Scott covers housekeeping and then breaks things down further into every day life and how to keep it chic.

Much of the gracefulness of At Home with Madame Chic comes from a difference in mindset often found between Americans and their French counterparts. For most of us, the house is something to be maintained and we do it with chores. Scott offers numerous ways to derive pleasure from everyday activities around the house—which is not to say she thinks every day should be spent cleaning and maintaining a home. Instead, she provides options for organizing the time needed to keep a house clean and even provides play lists and quick tips to make the time more enjoyable.

What makes the Madame Chic books so readable is that Scott keeps a lighthearted tone throughout. Despite the ‘chic’ label her books are not filled with mandates to distill your own lavender linen spray to use when you iron the sheets nor does she scold if you hit an afternoon slump. Instead, Scott offers help for women in all kinds of situations: apartment or home living, working or stay-at-home mothers, office commute or work-from-home. At Home with Madame Chic is about gracious living in a thoughtful way  and who doesn’t appreciate that?

If you’d like to learn more about living chic you can visit Jennifer at her blog The Daily Connoisseur. You can also see her Tedx Talk about the 10 item wardrobe here.

This book can be purchased online at:

Gretel and the Dark

gretel

Riverhead Books, October 14, 2014

 

Unless you’re reading a book of short stories it is unusual to get more than one scary plot in a single novel, but that is exactly what happens in Eliza Granville’s debut novel Gretel and the Dark. There is Lilie, the beautiful young patient of Dr. Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud’s mentor.  She is found beaten, abused and with her head shaved. She only speaks when ordered and claims she is not a human but is a machine created to kill a “monster”. Krysta is a little girl of school age but she does not attend school. Instead she and her father have moved to a new home after her mother’s suicide. There Krysta is coddled by her father, a doctor who she thinks works in a “zoo” filled not with animals but with “people-animals”. Krysta is never allowed to go there but spends her days willfully misbehaving and generally acting like an unhinged person when she doesn’t get her way.

Lilie’s story is set in 1899 Vienna and Krysta’s in the 1940s at Ravensbrück, a German concentration camp for women and children. Both of their stories unfold in a way surreal and all-too-real. Breuer, in his efforts to help Lilie tries to get her to talk about her past but her replies are either cryptic or nonsensical—telling him he must help her to save “your beloved descendants’ from terrible misfortune” and that butterflies are flowers. Krysta thinks everything she sees (including all that she is not supposed to see) is a fairytale. This is due in part to her closest companion being the housekeeper who tells her the most gruesome of Grimm’s fairytales—only those that involve children being hunted, killed, eaten, tortured—in an effort to make her behave and do as she is told.  When her father is found dead there are no relatives to take Krysta and her family’s lineage comes to light, meaning that she now joins the people-animals.

Initially, there seems to be no relationship between the lives of Lilie and Krysta but as their stories unfold events, names and places tug at the reader’s mind as being familiar. Granville goes even further by mixing the very real worlds of 1890s Vienna, psychoanalysis, and the Holocaust with Grimm’s fairytales, making the novel one that grips and shakes the reader from beginning to end. The astonishing amount of detail in Gretel and the Dark can mean that without being well-versed on one of the subjects the full impact of various scenes is lost. This is a small price to pay for a novel that overflows with mystery and emotion in a way that upends all preconceived notions and perceptions. Like so many fairytales nothing is what it seems and attention must be paid for the greatest rewards.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Gretel and the Dark
by Eliza Granville
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Leaving Time

leaving time

Ballantine Books, available October 14, 2014

 

It’s no small feat, finishing a journey…But no one ever mentions that once you get there, you still have to turn around and head all the way home. 

Jenna Metcalf is fourteen years old and has only one goal in life: find her mother. When she was four and living with her parents on an elephant sanctuary an employee was murdered and her mother was injured and later disappeared from the hospital. Her father had a complete mental breakdown and lives in an institution while Jenna’s grandmother raises her. In Leaving Time Jodi Picoult applies her powerful storytelling skills to the lives of Jenna, her mother Alice, and the two people Jenna gets to help her—a psychic named Serenity, whose career imploded, and Virgil, a former police detective who is now a private investigator.

I have not read a lot of Picoult but know that her novels often echo recent events about legal issues or complex human situations. Leaving Time does not fall neatly into either category but, on a deeper level, explores a number of disparate themes. There is Alice, an elephant researcher whose journals provide an insightful look at the psychological and emotional qualities of elephants, particularly how they deal with grief. These copious notes are all Jenna has left of her mother. Picoult blends this with Alice’s own life and the events that led to her injury and disappearance. The rest of the narrative is split between Serenity, Virgil, and Jenna and how they come together. For both Serenity and Virgil there is a redemptive quality to their efforts as both have failed in their professional endeavors. These are four very unique characters and yet, Picoult instills them with voices that ring true. This makes reading Leaving Time an imaginative exercise in that, like a great movie, you can hear and see the characters as they interact and the story unfolds.

The allure of Picoult is how thoroughly she leads the reader. There are great novels out there that require a lot of thought to puzzle them through. With Picoult all the work is done and there is nothing left for the reader but to sit back and trust that the loose ends, odd scenes, and unanswered questions will be taken care of. Absolutely, down to the last period. This doesn’t mean that Leaving Time is dumbed down. Not at all. It simply means that as you read you must abandon the urge to question or go back in your reading, because Picoult is a captain of such strength that she is piloting you exactly where you need to be. And if you can just relax and enjoy the brilliance with which she navigates a complicated story you will get the bang-up surprise of your life when she brings it all home.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Leaving Time
by Jodi Picoult
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Rooms: A Novel

rooms

Ecco, September 2014

 

People, Caroline thought, were like houses. They could open their doors. You could walk through their rooms and touch the objects hidden in their corners. But something—the structure, the wiring, the invisible mechanism that kept the whole thing standing—remained invisible, suggested only by the fact of its existing at all. 

Richard Walker has died and the country house where he lived now fills up with his ex-wife Caroline and his two children, Minna and Trenton. What they do not know is that throughout their lives and before, the house has also been occupied by two ghosts, Sandra and Alice. They all converge in Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Unlike the ghosts, Richard’s family manifests itself quickly. Caroline is an alcoholic who starts drinking in the morning but doesn’t truly fall apart until nightfall. Minna is a beautiful but angry young woman with a six-year-old daughter and enough phobias to fill one of the rooms in the house. Trenton was the surprise baby, and is now an awkward teenager who thinks about suicide. All of them were estranged from Richard and now find themselves gathered in a house filled with memories that go far beyond their own.

Sandra and Alice have an equally strong presence in Rooms in that they are interwoven into the structure of the house itself. It is not just their past that keeps them in this world; it is the house as well and they can feel it—whether it is being crowded or even pain when a wall is kicked or a door slammed. Oliver also uses this premise of space in their relationship. They were foisted onto each other by having died in the same house so there is no bond and they bicker and complain as any two strangers would who were captive in one place for decades. The brash and volatile Sandra claims to want honesty but for the quiet and proper Alice

These are my secrets: roads branching, endlessly branching, each leading to a hundred others. When Sandra first came, I was tempted to share, to explain. But now I know: certain stories must remain mine, so that there is a me to remain.

The wisdom of time only allows Sandra and Alice to understand the Walkers as they muddle through the aftereffects of Richard’s death but does not make their own secrets any less onerous.

Oliver separates Rooms into the spaces of a house, with large rooms that hold happiness and those so small that hurt bounces off the walls with nowhere to go. As we pass through them we learn more about the people who lived there and that in some way each is holding onto something they need to release in order to move forward. Oliver handles all of this complexity with a grace that gives the novel a feeling of lightness even at its darkest moments and makes it so much more than a ghost story.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Rooms
by Lauren Oliver
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Company

Dept. of Speculation

dept of speculation

Vintage, pbk release October 2014

 

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a tiny slip of a novel, small in size, only 156 pages long, and yet it chronicles a young woman’s life with as much intimacy as novels of greater length. Somehow, Offill uses words to their maximum advantage in a minimum of space. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, recounts her life from her days as a single woman to meeting her husband, having their child and finally, to learning of his infidelity. And that is how it goes: One day they are joined in the endorphin high of looking at their new child’s face and the next he has met someone “easier”.

The story is told in numerous chapters composed of little paragraphs of trivia, single sentences, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and obscure facts about space from the narrator’s job as a ghost writer for a wealthy former astronaut. Offill’s writing is a combination of Erma Bombeck’s sly wit and Nora Ephron’s eyes-wide-open reality, stirring humor into the sadness. She shares the minutia of everyday life with all its attendant fears in a mashup of tenses—moving from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back in a way that should stop the reader’s mind and yet, only heightens the feeling that while very little is going on, everything is happening. It is the slow erosion that comes after years of rain, when what seemed strong is no longer. For the narrator, her identity is mutating into something she does not recognize:

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be. 

The narrator may be feeling the loss of her creativity as life tosses her around but Offill has no such problems. She mixes astute human observations with bits and bobs of unrelated topics in a way that could be confusing but is, instead, deeply relatable. In Dept. of Speculation we know this woman and, in some ways, are this woman. We have all been there and as she ruminates and reminisces, quips and jabs, we want to give her a hug, some words of wisdom and share a martini. In that order.

This book is available for purchase online at:

Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Diamond Lane

diamond lane

Hawthorne Books, September 2014

 

Life here was weighted with the vague feeling that if anything was happening, it was happening wherever one wasn’t. Maybe that accounted for all the driving…Eleven million people scurrying around, trying to find the exclusive exciting event that would make them feel at the center of something big. 

Mimi Fitzhenry is the type of living-in-Hollywood character who chooses to host book club because she had her apartment cleaned rather than pick up her sister, whom she hasn’t seen in seven years and who is flying 21 hours from Nairobi. Mouse, the sister, is only returning because Mimi’s phone call to her was so garbled that she thinks their mother is dying after being hit on the head by a ceiling fan. Mimi’s take-away from the conversation is that Mouse is getting married, which is she is not. These are just two small pieces of the foundation for Karen Karbo’s witty delight, The Diamond Lane.

There are so many ways to go when skewering life in La La Land and Karbo uses almost all of them to great effect. Mimi is the quintessentially self-absorbed, bulimic twit who spends money she doesn’t have and frets endlessly about her weight to the point that she envies her mother’s coma because being tube fed for a couple of weeks would allow her to lose weight. Mouse is earnest, bright and independent, so she must also be frumpy and clueless about men. She is a documentary filmmaker who now finds herself back in a town she does not understand, trying to get a distributer for her films. She agrees to marry her boyfriend Tony because she thinks her mother is dying. Once they settle in L.A. they face their own unexpected challenges, meaning Tony is swept up in the hype of the film industry and finds himself writing a screenplay about his relationship with Mouse in Africa without her knowledge. He rides in fancy cars, “takes meetings”, and quickly acclimates to the life she abhors. She, on the other hand, is so out of her element that she tries to walk everywhere and is stopped by the police, who want to know what she is doing.

Karbo widens the lens in The Diamond Lane by adding Tony and Mouse’s wedding to the mix of consumerism out of control. When Mouse meets up with an old flame who is also a filmmaker he asks her if she wants to produce a documentary he’ll make of her wedding. Desperate for money, she agrees (without telling Tony) and a no-budget on the beach wedding explodes into the heights of bridal insanity, including a dressmaker named Ludvica who, if she decided she didn’t like you midway through making your dress would cut it up into doll clothes and donate them to a children’s hospital. And let’s not forget that the only candles worth having are those flown in from the Vatican and the tiny handmade chocolate favors must sit atop lace crocheted by nuns in France.

The Diamond Lane overflows with sly and vicious observations about all that is superficial in the world of two over-the-top, narcissistic industries but in the midst of all the scathing satire and the withering prose, Karbo still manages luscious bits of insight into real human emotion.

She was not angry. Being angry implied that one day she would cool down. It implied a door was still open, even if only a crack. When she got angry, the door slammed. It locked. Then the locks were changed.

The diamond lane is the HOV lane on most highways and in L.A. it’s the only way to get ahead, making it an apt title for a novel where everyone has an agenda and is looking to arrive. Karbo tucks the reader beside her in the driver’s seat and cruises through the foibles of the characters and their situations with such dexterity that even as the crash looms ahead you’re laughing.When the inevitable arrives, it is accompanied by a perfectly timed sleight-of-hand that reaffirms the importance of high wit—writing so sharp but subtle that you have to be wide-awake to get it. The only problem with The Diamond Lane? The ride ends and I wanted to keep reading.

 Maybe that was the real cause of smog, thought Mimi. The chemical reaction between kitchen grease, ozone, and a jillion sour dreams and ruined hopes.

 

This book is available for purchase online at:

The Diamond Lane
by Karen Karbo
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

September Mini-Reviews

I know it’s October but somehow the onset of this fall is making me slow down rather than speed up to greet the cooler weather. Apparently, I’m moving into a mental hibernation before winter even hits!

September is a big month in the book world and I was fortunate to read and review of number of anticipated novels. There is more to come in October but here are some mini-reviews of additional September reading.

 

mini-reviews

Soho Press, September 2014

Rainey Royal is a fourteen-year-old mean girl in the 1970s in the eponymous novel by Dylan Landis. She lives in an old brownstone with her jazz musician father and the rotating cast of acolytes who move through his life and infringe on hers. She is largely left on her own as her mother split for a spiritual retreat years ago and has not been in touch since. So, with an excess of chutzpah Rainey rules the girls around her and seems to thrill in her power over them and over any and all of the men she encounters.

Landis gives us a sharp portrait of a girl who, knowing that she has no protection in the world, generates her own white-hot force field of defense. There is no vulnerability in Rainey; she is one who will take anything and everything she wants, going so far as to rob a couple using a gun she stole. For her, it is a lark, an amusement with her best friend Tina. It is this kind of wanton cruelty that makes it hard to keep a different Rainey in sight. She has an artistic gift but it is buried so far down below the layers of posing and acting out that even as she gets older and is able to make her own choices she still uses the same behaviors to get ahead. Her friends move on to college and professional spheres but she continues in the rebellious teen mindset, manipulating people right up until the bitter end—and it is bitter. Despite being set in the 70s Rainey Royal reads like a contemporary novel with the pretty, self-absorbed, tough girl trope. Landis executes that aspect well, but I was left indifferent.


mini-reviews

 
 

Gillian Flynn seems to like nothing better than taking on what are deemed scared relationships. Gone Girl skewered marriage but her first novel, Sharp Objects, paints a mother-daughter portrait that positively drips blood. Compulsive reading that takes the sweet small town ethos and turns it on its ugly head.

 
 


mini-reviewsMerritt Tierce joins the contemporary fiction faction with her debut novel Love Me Back, the story of Marie—a dysfunctional, self-harming waitress. All though well-written this novel is depressing from every angle. Marie is bright and destined for Yale when she gets pregnant by her high school boyfriend and has the baby. He is a well-meaning man but for whatever reason, she finds the lure of other men unavoidable and begins cheating on him. With nothing more than a high school degree she is relegated to a life of waitressing and somehow this comes paired with a life of drugs, drinking, and indiscriminate sex with numerous men.

Marie’s life is so full of both imposed and self-imposed degradation that reading it is difficult. Tierce opts for a style of prose that may accurately depict the splintered bits of Marie’s mind but it makes for a lot of confusion in determining what is the past or the present. That and a lack of proper names for a number of the men Marie encounters means the ability to connect with her story is diminished. Love Me Back falls into a category of contemporary literature that is difficult for me to understand. I believe in a woman’s right to own her sexuality and to break away from norms but Marie is not in control in her life. She is done unto not the doer. She is a smart, adult woman but allows herself to be sexually, physically, and emotionally abused and there’s nothing empowering about that. Perhaps I am simply missing the point of this type of work but I found it degrading and depressing as hell. The novel is flatlined in misery.

Belzhar: A Novel

belzhar

Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2014

 

Imagine a small boarding school for “fragile” teens in rural Vermont and within that school an exclusive English class to which only 4 or 5 students are handpicked to join. With this Meg Wolitzer makes her debut in YA fiction. Having read and loved The Interestings, her last adult novel, I knew I had to give Belzhar a try. The school is The Wooden Barn and Jamaica (known as Jam) Gallahue has been sent there after her downward spiral when her boyfriend dies. She doesn’t care because she no longer cares about anything and when she is told that she is part of Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English class, she doesn’t care about that either. Even when she learns that there is only one author taught for the entire semester and that the majority of the work involves writing twice a week in a journal provided by the teacher—that will never be read by anyone else—she still cannot muster the energy to participate.

There are 4 other people in the class, none of whom know each other and most of whom have no particular interest in English or writing. It is only as they start writing in their journals and have similar experiences when they do, that they begin to come together. Belzhar is the code name they use to talk about these experiences as they fall well outside what normally happens at school. Wolitzer does a marvelous job at infusing just the right amount of magical realism into this aspect of Belzhar in that the journals are not just notebooks filled with paper but have a highly individualized and intense impact on each student. As the weeks pass, the writing experience deepens until the end of the semester approaches and events spin out of control.

Belzhar is a perfect amalgam of teenage life and fantasy. Even the fantastical properties of the journals feel real and not unexpected thanks to the way it is presented. Through the journals we learn each teen’s story while we watch them open up and start to bond. Wolitzer gives the same care to the teenage psyche that she does to her adult characters and it can be felt in her words. All of this came together for me with the exception of Jam. For whatever reason, her back story left me cold and feeling cheated but it does supply a high level of drama to the plot. Wolitzer is so gifted at probing the complexities of life and emotion at any age that Belzhar is a reading experience worth having even as an adult.

This book can be purchased online at:

Belzhar
by Meg Wolitzer
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

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