Book Review

Book Review: The Days of Abandonment

I know this makes me sound like a major nerd, but I actually have a favorite publishing company: Europa Editions. Europa publishes tons of international books that have been translated into English. I’ve found so many gems from this publishing company, but recently I read one that I just had to share: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante.

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Elena Ferrante is an Italian author who is most known for being notoriously private. Her true identity has never been revealed, although there is plenty of speculation online as to who she might be. She is known most for her four-book Neapolitan series. The Days of Abandonment is one of her earlier works, but I thought it was an absolutely fantastic exploration of a crumbling relationship.

The Days of Abandonment follows a woman who is blindsided by her husband as he leaves her. In this short book (it’s only 188 pages), you can track her grief – from denial to emptiness to acceptance. This is one of the most emotionally raw books I’ve ever read, but it worked. I could see some complain that it is overly sentimental, but I disagree. I think that Ferrante has depicted the genuine emotion that comes from this situation. This is a hyper-realistic story that really touches on the psyche of the abandoned. Here, you can see how the whole family has to deal with this unexpected change. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for carefully crafted domestic literary fiction.

Book Review

Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

I recently encountered a great character study, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

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This was a beautiful book, and I loved the character of Lucy Barton. When we meet her, she is recovering from complications from a recent surgery on her appendix. (Fun fact about me: one of my greatest fears is appendicitis!) While she’s recovering, her estranged mother comes to her side. Throughout this short novel, we learn a lot about the past and how discovering the past can change the future. The family secrets and the odd mother/daughter relationship made this one very intriguing, compelling literary novel. While it is certainly character-driven, it was also remarkably fast-faced. My only criticism is that I wanted more when I reached the end.

Book Review

Review: The Underground Railroad

I recently finished reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and it was a really stunning piece of literature. I am so happy that it won this year’s National Book Award!

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This is the third book I have read by Colson Whitehead. The first two were a post-apocalyptic zombie tale called Zone One and a humorous autobiography about his own professional poker playing experiences called The Noble Hustle. Both of these books were vastly different than the historical one I’m reviewing here, but I think that they speak to Whitehead’s genius and the fact that he is fearless and writes whatever he feels like writing instead of staying pigeonholed in one genre. That being said, all of the books and excerpts I’ve read have shared a similar, literary writing style with somewhat flowery prose. I happen to be a fan of somewhat flowery prose, but I could definitely understand if some readers decide they find Whitehead to be a bit too verbose.

The Underground Railroad follows a slave named Cora who escapes from a Georgia plantation and tries to find freedom following the underground railroad. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t like this because I’ve just read so many slave narratives that I thought it would feel like a repeat of all the others (I feel this way about World War II books as well). However, I was pleasantly surprised! This book was just beautifully written and compelling. I couldn’t put it down, and I felt a close connection to the main character Cora. She was crafted so intricately and perfectly, as were the words used to describe her experiences. Whitehead also ingeniously uses a literal subway system, which felt fresh and interesting.

Whitehead himself is also an interesting guy. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago at an academic event, and he is very charming and down-to-earth. I had frankly been nervous to meet him given his literary standing and MacArthur Fellowship, but he was so funny and intriguing and a bit self-deprecating. I’m sure that these positive memories do play a role in how well I review his books, but I genuinely think this is a great read for anyone who wants something thought-provoking and historical. So often, big awards like the National Book Award give their awards to books that seem so dry and inaccessible, and I’m so pleased that this is neither. I think this one is destined to be considered a classic.

Book Review

Book Review: The Nest

I am very excited to be able to share my thoughts about Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest. I have not been this excited about a novel since I read Liane Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies.

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The Nest centers around the Plumb family – four siblings who have been living their lives and making (mostly poor) decisions with the expectation that when the youngest sibling turns 40, they’ll all receive huge sums of money from a nest egg that their father invested before his death. However, something happens that threatens the nest egg and causes each sibling to examine his or her life and choices.

This was an absolutely brilliant novel. The most frequent criticism of the book is that the characters are unlikable. I think this is valid to an extent. Most of the characters are very self-centered, but aren’t we all at some point in our lives, especially when our expectations of how our lives are going to go are challenged? I thought that each and every character, even the numerous minor characters, were so realistically crafted. I will admit that the volume of characters in this book (four siblings + some significant others + some children + coworkers + ex-significant others + a grumpy mother + additional tertiary characters) was a bit intimidating at first, but because even the most minor of characters was given character-development moments, I was able to easily keep everyone straight. Everyone had a distinct personality and remained consistent throughout the novel. Even the character growth was all very plausible and kept in mind how each character had already been established. No one had a seemingly miraculous transformation. They all acted and reacted and responded in ways that made sense for their characters.

The closer I got to the ending, the more I began to fear what was going to happen with the narrative. Would the author choose a cheesy happily-ever-after that negated all of the realism of the previous pages? Would she go for an ending filled with tragedy or would it feel entirely unresolved? I obviously will not be giving away the ending, and I don’t even really want to hint at it, but I will say that it was perfectly crafted. It ended on a note of believable hope and optimism. Things were as resolved as they could be for a dysfunctional family, which is to say that there was still room for anything to happen after “The End” but the immediate core conflicts faced by the characters in the book were resolved beautifully and realistically.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking for character-driven contemporary fiction, especially if you’re looking for something that deals with domestic issues. Any type of relationship you can imagine (parenthood, romantic entanglements, sibling rivalry, friendship, etc.) is addressed at some point. For writers, I would definitely recommend this book as an example of where an author successfully broke a rule of writing fiction: she does not keep a consistent point-of-view. In this novel, the POV changes almost constantly with each scene, but it absolutely worked. This novel would have been a totally different creature if we were getting information about all of the characters filtered through the eyes of only one character, who will naturally be biased. The way that this is written, we get a true “big picture” view of each character and how they seem themselves and others. It is amazing in terms of character development. Similarly, the way the dialogue is written seems so organic. It never feels stilted or forced. Anyone struggling with writing dialogue should read this dialogue as an example of how to write believable conversations.

I can’t wait to see what Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney writes next. I’ll have to look through my Goodreads page to confirm, but I’m fairly certain that this was the best book I read during 2016.

Book Review

Book Review: Brooklyn

The novel Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is a truly remarkable feat of describing a the immigrant experience. Irish author Toibin describes the adventures of transformation of a young woman named Ellis who who moves from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s.

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This novel was the source material for the critically-acclaimed film with the same name. The beauty of this book is that it is such a wonderfully-written coming-of-age story. Ellis moves to a new county and experiences a brand new culture, and naturally adjusts to her new environment while growing up at the same time. She finds a purpose. She experiences love and loss and hope. This novel takes its readers through the highs and lows of human experience all while framing the narrative with familiar cultural tropes.

The atmosphere is wonderfully described. There is a definite sense of time and place. The descriptions of Ellis’ time in Brooklyn as well as in Ireland are distinct and filled with beautiful imagery that makes it easy to follow to visualize. This is a novel that deserved all its acclaim.

I would think that readers who tend to prefer likable character-driven narratives will be the ones who are most drawn to this novel. While there is a plot, it moves slowly. It’s not uncomfortably slow; it’s just that action and event is not the main focus of the narrative, which is completely fine. Still, those used to more plot than character may not find this as magical as I did.

Book Review

Book Review: The Vegetarian

Title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang 

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Quick Takeaway: The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang tells the story of Yeong-Hye, a woman who swears off meat after experiencing recurring, blood-soaked nightmares. The novel tracks her swift mental decline and describes how she is treated by South Korean society and her family.

Who Should Read This?  Anyone interested in mental illness, South Korean culture, or dark/absurdist scenarios.

Review: I picked up this book after reading a really interesting review about it in the New York Times Book Review. I must say that this is one of the most original books that I have read in quite a while. Despite the name and the description, this book is not preachy or actually trying to convince readers not to eat meat. Rather, it is a really interesting character study about a woman’s decline into madness. This begins when she has horrifying bloody dreams and becomes obsessed with avoiding meat because she thinks this will cause the nightmares to stop. Her family has no idea how to handle her. Society has no idea how to handle her. This book is very much allegorical about South Korean society, but I found the mental illness aspects to be the most interesting.

If I had to try to classify this novel, I think I would describe it as literary horror. There are many horrific elements and descriptions, but the focus is definitely the characters rather than the events surrounding the book. I found Yeong-Hye’s relationships with her sister and brother-in-law to be the most interesting. The moments with her sister were very realistic and intriguing. The moments with her brother-in-law, a photograper, were incredibly absurd in a strangely artistic way. I don’t want to give too much away, so I think I’ll just leave that there.

Final Thoughts: Not everyone will like this book. It is pretty experimental and sort of falls between genres, but I was impressed by it and I think that there’s a good chance that literary horror lovers will enjoy this one.