I’ve read 17 books so far this year. For the month of April, I focused primarily on reading library books. Bellevue Public Library started the 2018 Adult Library Program and I wanted to participate. It’s been fun trying out different books and authors.
The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books—or better yet, your own reading goals for the year—I’d encourage you to comment on this post.
Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Before I began reading library books in earnest for the month of April, I decided it was time to read another Two Dollar Radio book. Palaces by Simon Jacobs caught my eye right away with that startling black, white, and red cover. After reading the synopsis, I decided to give the novel a try.
Synopsis from the Two Dollar Radio website:
John and Joey are a young couple immersed in their local midwestern punk scene, who after graduating college sever all ties and move to a perverse and nameless northeastern coastal city. They drift in and out of art museums, basement shows, and derelict squats seemingly unfazed as the city slowly slides into chaos around them.Late one night, forced out of their living space, John and Joey are driven to take shelter in a chain pharmacy before emerging to a city in full-scale riot. They find themselves the only passengers on a commuter train headed north, and exit at the final stop to discover the area entirely devoid of people. As John and Joey negotiate their future through bizarre, troubling manifestations of the landscape and a succession of abandoned mansions housing only scant clues to their owners’ strange and sudden disappearance, they’re also forced to confront the resurgent violence and buried memories of their shared past.With incisive precision and a cool detachment, Simon Jacobs has crafted a surreal and spellbinding first novel of horror and intrigue.
- There’s a slow-burning insidiousness in this novel; it creeps up and pounces on the reader in a way that only well-written horror can. The horrific components are multifaceted too, which makes it all the more interesting.
- Palaces also has one of the most complex unreliable narrators I’ve ever encountered. John made me work hard to decide if I could trust what he was saying. It was challenging to try and figure it out. Jacobs also uses this literary technique to examine power from a male point of view.
Who should read Palaces:
- Fans of novels that examine gender roles and power structures
- Those who like fusions of literary, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction
- Readers who enjoy unreliable narrators
- Those who understand the Midwestern punk scene
The title of Julia Leigh‘s novella, Disquiet, intrigued me when I examined it on the shelves at Bellevue Public Library. I wanted to know why the characters were disquieted, what would cause that. I cracked open the book and began reading to find out.
Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:
Olivia arrives at her mother’s chateau in rural France (the first time in more than a decade) with her two young children in tow. Soon the family is joined by Olivia’s brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, but this reunion is far from joyful. After years of desperately wanting a baby, Sophie has just given birth to a stillborn child, and she is struggling to overcome her devastation. Meanwhile, Olivia wrestles with her own secrets about the cruel and violent man she married many years before. Exquisitely written and reminiscent of Ian McEwan and J. M. Coetzee, Disquiet is a darkly beautiful and atmospheric story that will linger in the mind long after the final page is turned.
What worked well:
- This plot-driven novella has film-like scenes that flaunt gorgeous imagery and action. I was often entranced by what was happening on the page. That type of authorial control over a text is rare and powerful.
- The quick pace lends urgency to the story and I read compulsively in reaction to the palpable tension. It was a short, quick read overall, but even more so because I was so invested in figuring out what was going to happen.
Who should read Disquiet:
- Those who appreciate a gothic atmosphere and macabre stories
- Readers who like plot-driven novellas
- Those who enjoy quickly-paced and urgent stories with much tension between characters
- Fans of family dramas
Synopsis from the Macmillan website:
Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of “Bloomington” reads, “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in “A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates,” a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert’s correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author’s own dreams, or the dreams of friends.
What does not vary throughout Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis’s fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.
What worked well:
- Of the few stories I liked reading in this collection, what worked well was the focus on middle-aged and elderly characters. So often middle-aged and elderly characters—especially women—are omitted or treated as a minor character within stories. Davis pushes them up to the front in Can’t and Won’t and makes them the narrators, the protagonists, and the main characters.
- “The Letter to the Foundation” was a standout for me. It’s an intimate examination of a woman working in academia. This character-driven story struck me as personal, heart-breaking, and true. Ironically one of the longer stories in the collection (30 pages), I felt it showed off Davis’s true mastery of short fiction. While writing about complex emotions by using chiseled prose, Davis turns an otherwise mundane and unremarkable character into someone the reader can empathize with.
Who should read Can’t and Won’t:
- Devoted readers of micro stories, flash fiction, and short stories
- Fans of Lydia Davis’s experiments with fiction
- Those who love books about the everyday and the mundane
- Readers who enjoy subtle, dark humor
After listening to Han Kang‘s Human Acts on audiobook, I knew that reading more of her work would be both a joy and an extreme challenge for me. The Vegetarian was exactly that—a joy and a challenge—and, like Human Acts, I think it is an extremely important book.
Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:
A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.
What worked well:
- Literary fiction that focuses so heavily on sex usually is a major turnoff for me—especially if that focus ventures into the realm of sexual assault and rape. But The Vegetarian drew me in despite these subjects because Han Kang masterfully discusses agency in a way that few other writers can. Her choice to rarely venture into Yeong-hye’s point of view is one of those masterful choices. The other point-of-view characters—Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister—each show Yeong-hye through their perspective and desires for her. It’s a terrifying and truthful examination of how we attempt to strip others of their agency.
- Also, the images presented in Kang’s refined prose are haunting and gorgeous. From the nightmarish dream sequences to the sharply focused scenes, everything feels tangible and—horrifically—beautiful.
Who should read The Vegetarian:
- Readers who enjoy novels that examine agency
- Those who are prepared to read about intense abuse and rape
- Fans of Han Kang’s Human Acts
- Readers who enjoy motifs of transformation, nature, humanity, madness, death, and freedom