A Great Reckoning (CBR11 #56)

A Great Reckoning: A Novel (Chief Inspector Gamache Novel Book 12) by [Penny, Louise]

After reading The Long Way Home last year and The Nature of the Beast earlier this year I still wasn’t sure what Louise Penny had remaining up her sleeve for the residents of Three Pines and the remaining members of the Sûreté, but I knew not to worry about it anymore. While those books were heading towards a new direction, this book finally takes sure steps into the new reality these characters are facing. The Nature of the Beast accepted the new status quo, this book relishes in it. Isabelle Lacoste has settled into her role of Chief Inspector, Jean Guy Beauvoir is coming into his own as husband, soon to be father, and recovering addict. But perhaps most importantly Armand Gamache has decided what his next steps professionally will be, as his retirement was not permanent.

A Great Reckoning lives up to its name – Gamache is directly reckoning with several different elements of his past both within and without the Sûreté. What really worked for me in this book was the emotionally powerful narrative threads Penny wove together. In her Author’s Note Penny thanked those who have supported her and her husband while they deal with his dementia. It is clear on the page how her emotional work in her personal life is reflected in the emotional work of her characters, once you know its there. The final denouement of the activities in the Academy faintly pulled at my credulity, but the mental abuse and prolonged damage it was meant to convey landed fine. I’ll be happily picking up the thirteenth book in this series early next year and remain confident in what Penny is exploring.  

Sing, Unburied, Sing (CBR11 #55)

Sing, Unburied, Sing

In 2015 I read Ward’s Men We Reaped and I was fascinated with the way Ward’s language in a memoir was tinged with a bit of magical realism, and also just a larger than life feeling. At the time I put Ward on my radar – this was an author I was interested in a further relationship with. Once reviews for her 2017 work Sing, Unburied, Sing started coming in I knew this would be the one.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a big, award-winning book (National Book Award for Fiction (2017), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (2018)), and I can understand why very easily. But it is also a book that left me scratching my head a bit even before we got to the ending. Part of it is certainly the literary roots that Ward is working from, because while Ward is telling the stories of the places physically and emotionally, she knows, she is also building on the great American writers before her like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. There are lines to be drawn here to Beloved but I won’t be the one to draw them, that is far outside my wheelhouse. But its perhaps that Morrison comparison that shows me why I’m in awe of the craftmanship in Ward’s lyrical work but not enamored of them, the magical is made literal in a way that no longer allows me as the reader to connect.

They share a regionalism, for Ward that regionalism provides the images that are repeated again and again as a shorthand to the reader of what is often beautiful is always barely hiding danger. From pines to skin and garments red with mud to animals waiting for slaughter the reader is haunted by an eerie quality of lurking unease. In one of my favorite insights from the New Yorker article linked above, the author compares the characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing to being stranded in an epilogue. That makes a great deal of sense to me, the meat of this novel is a road trip to prison where Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, and Misty head toward Michael’s release and the place where Pop lived out a nightmare. We are seeing with these characters the aftereffects of their lives, but there is very little in the way of forward movement. Certainly an interesting way to unpack the very real consequences of life in the American South.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood (CBR11 #54)

Seduction by Karina Longworth

I’ve been a fan of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This since 2015, and when Longworth announced she was writing a book about the Howard Hughes era of Hollywood focusing on the women who came into contact with him and telling their stories I was intrigued. After listening last year to the season “The Seduced” which served as an extended trailer for this book as well as a place for information that didn’t fit into the book (which at over 500 pages certainly has plenty) I knew I would be reading it sooner rather than later although it still took my a full year, such is the TBR list.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood sets about telling its reader about the lives and careers of over a dozen actresses who were involved, professionally and/or personally, with Howard Hughes (the book is an outgrowth of You Must Remember This episodes on “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes” produced in 2014-2015 which I have gone back and listened to before reading this book). I am a Longworth devotee because of the impeccable craft of her podcast episodes and other writings: she is incredibly adept at contextualizing what you are listening to. Longworth is relentless in her research and is always looking at her subjects from various angles and interrogating those angles to get as close to truth as is possible when chronicling the history of a professional sphere which specializes in hiding truth.

I was not disappointed at all in the book – Longworth accomplishes exactly what I expected her to and my voracious consumption of You Must Remember This didn’t usurp the reading experience. There is plenty here that didn’t make either podcast season, and things that are explored more deeply. As an added benefit as I’m listening along with Longworth’s current season about Disney’s Song of the South her voice played along in my head as I read.

Since this is for the Pajiba Bingo Square at Cannonball Read it makes sense to respond to Kayleigh Donaldson’s article from last year here in the review as well. Kayleigh and I are very much on the same page regarding Longworth’s strengths. I completely agree with the following: “Longworth is at her best when she focuses on the overlooked details of history. Everyone knows the story about the ridiculous bra Hughes had made for Jane Russell on production of The Outlaw but they may not be so familiar with the other ways Hughes objectified her throughout her career, such as a notorious dance number in The French Line that even Russell thought went too far (and yes, this was filmed in 3D)”.  

A Good Man is Hard to Find (CBR11 #53)

This is my first O’Connor, which seems strange as a Catholic raised in the American South (maybe if I had gone to a catholic school?) and it is both fascinating and darkly comic, which I don’t know that I was ready for.

O’Connor is asking the reader what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be moral? Tthose questions are the heart of A Good Man is Hard to Find, and then doubled down by making it the title piece of her first collection and the story she most often chose for readings or talks to students. Which is an interesting choice in and of itself – why a tale about a family that haplessly wandered their ways to their deaths, but deaths that on the whole the reader feels little remorse for?

O’Connor juxtaposes a very mundane day and a very mundane character in that of the grandmother with a confrontation of a family faced with unexpected violence and sudden death. While this story has a slow start (which after reading The Lottery seems part and parcel of short stories of this era) it is certainly a provocative story expressing the author’s view on the world through grotesque situations where the principal character faces a problem of salvation.  

I’m only rating this three stars, but that’s not to say that this is a failure in any larger even though I found it brief and uneven at times. Whatever O’Connor’s doing, she’s obviously very good at it. She’s playing in the Southern Gothic genre: this story contains distorted characters and sinister situations, uneasy atmosphere, as if something terrible is on the verge of happening because it is and racial prejudice is on display both front and center and simmering in the background. O’Connor mixes comedy, violence, and religious concerns in this story giving a microcosm of her work and while I’m not racing back for more, I know I’ll return.

Carry On (CBR11 #52 – Cannonball!)

This review is a group review completed by myself and my fellow reviewers and friends Ale and Crystalclear for Cannonball Read bingo. Enjoy!

Ale:

I very much enjoy that Rainbow Rowell did the most meta thing ever and basically wrote a fan-fic about her own characters that were characters in a fan-fic created by her own characters. I’m still wrapping my own brain around that sentence. But I think it’s a testament to her craft that she had characters that were so nuanced from Fangirl that she could expand them into another two books (note from faintingviolet – Rowell has announced that this will officially be a trilogy). She’s also totally fanning on Harry Potter, and yet even though I knew that all the way through, I didn’t want to do anything but read this book (and I’m already halfway through Wayward Son).

Crystalclear:

Yup, this… is Harry Potter.  I mean, not really, and it’s not a fanfiction fanfiction, but it’s a fanfiction.  To make the worst possible comparison, it’s an actual good and not dirty 50 Shades to Twilight, but Harry Potter.  That’s bad.  That’s not what this is at all.  This is taking the ideas and characters of Harry Potter and changing them and creating other plotlines. Simon Snow is the Harry Potter character (but blond!)  Baz is the Draco Malfoy (but with black hair!) Penny is the Hermione, and Agatha is the Ginny, I think. (faintingviolet – yep the Ginny comparison works for me.) The Mage is Dumbledore, but more obviously shitty. Simon has a deep well of power that he can’t quite control (a fanfiction trope).  Baz is *spoiler* a vampire (another fanfiction trope.) The Mage has an agenda involving politics and does not have Simon’s best interest at heart and is against Baz’s family (which is pretty spot on with Harry Potter, actually.) Knowing this is a fanfiction, you still get to the reveal at the end of Chapter 32 and it’s the big “Yes!” moment.  

Rowell definitely takes the story in different directions than Rowling was able to.  Then again, Harry Potter was written for kids, and Carry On is not.  There are real dangers and real consequences of people’s actions here.

Faintingviolet:

Maybe it’s because we just did an adaptation/retelling book club but this fanfictioned Harry Potter sticks in my brain as a remix. We’ve got all the component parts that Crystalclear has laid out, but this feels inspired by, not traced. It should be noted that I expected no less of the fantastic Rainbow Rowell. She is using  meta-textual interaction with Rowling’s series to pull apart and turn Chosen One tropes on their head, and then goes ahead and gives us a yearning gay teen romance for the ages. It’s more than I dared dream it would be. 

Ale: 

I think Rowell’s able to take the story to new places because she’s starting her story where Rowling left hers. Rowell alludes to the seven years of Simon’s adventures, but they’re all in the past and we get to focus on how a lifestyle of ‘being the hero,’ has affected Simon (mostly for the worse). Rowell also offers us a window of humanity into the ‘bad’ magicians since not only is Simon forced to share a room with Baz, but in her usual style, Rowell passes the story between her characters, letting us hear from Baz’s point of view. We understand his motives and the reasons his family and the other old families are opposed to the changes being made. They may be wrong (because they are), but we get to understand why they believe what they do, which goes a long way to humanizing the supposed enemy.

Faintingviolet: 

Rowell’s ability to build strong characters, and then give them the space to present their worldviews is on full display here. We obviously get it with Baz, but I knew right away that we were in for a very specific kind of reading experience with Penelope’s first chapter. The compassion, love, and fear were palpable in a few short lines. I was invested in a way that I hadn’t been just pages before, and I was pretty invested to start with. 

Ale:

It’s an interesting world that Rowell’s building here in that it’s less like the all encompassing world of Harry Potter, with aurors and a ministry, etc, and more like a big dysfunctional family. All the major families are inter-married in some way, and magic is a purely genetic thing. There are no Hermionies in this world – no magical kids sprouting from non-magical parents. Magic begets magic, and only the wealthy matter. It’s about power and class. So maybe there are magical kids out there with Normal parents, but this society would never know because they don’t acknowledge that it can happen.

Crystalclear:

I like how we both immediately latched on to the part where they say they have no magical law enforcement.  In Harry Potter they at least tried.  The Mage has a goon squad, and that’s about it.  Then again, The Mage is kind of a crazy garbage person.  If something goes wrong, who would anyone report anything to?  The Coven? That wouldn’t work very well, seeing as they’re government and probably work at a glacial pace to get anything done.

Ale:

I was also intrigued by the creatures of this world: vampires, goblins, and numpties, etc. Like in Harry Potter, Magicians are at the top of the hierarchy, the only thing standing between the Normals and their abject destruction at the hands of the ‘dark’ creatures. But their society’s hero-complex is always a little vague… like it’s the lie they tell themselves to validate their superiority complex. This is shown specifically through Agatha’s character, whose own parents don’t seem to understand her wish for a normal teenagehood. 

Faintingviolet:

See,  I was intrigued by the way the magic worked – both in the ways in which characters felt their magic (which I don’t think we ever got in HP) and also in the mechanics of its functioning. That magic is found in repeating common phrases or lyrics grounded what we were reading while also providing a nice little mental soundtrack. 

All I can really say is that this lived up to my hopes. I let this book sit unread on my shelf for years because it was the only unread Rowell novel I had left (it didn’t hurt that it drove Crystalclear nuts). Then this year we got Wayward Son and Pumpkinheads and the promise of more on the way. I’m glad we got Ale on the bandwagon, because sometimes the best part is experiencing things with your friends, and I think the characters would agree with that. 

The Lottery (CBR11 #51)

In a bit of bingo logistics, I decided a couple short stories might be in order to fill in as many remaining squares as I could. With that in mind I went down the list of things I’ve been meaning to read anyway and came across “The Lottery”by Shirley Jackson which has quite the history of making people question its place in front of readers at all.

What I didn’t know was just how short it really is – its only 3,773 words long! But, as I sat reading the story that has been credited with spawning so many other works of short horror I tried to put myself in the mind’s eye of someone who was picking up The New Yorker in June 1948, the sneaking feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and finally the shock and distaste as the details suddenly come together in the mind’s eye.  While I can’t say that this is a great literary work of any length, I can see why its pacing and content crossed with setting unsettled so many readers and eventually led it to gain infamy for being routinely banned by public schools.

Famously this short story came together for Jackson in one afternoon and was immediately picked up by The New Yorker and published three weeks later. I can see where this work was quickly written and published, its characters are flat and the plot is very sparse. It functions at its best as a snapshot of a slightly skewed parallel world asking us to think about how we might be viewed from the outside. What terrible things have become mundane in our own lives? But I promise you that you will never care less about the description of a plain black box.

My favorite bit of Jackson trivia surrounding the reception and banning attempts of the short story are about its banning in apartheid era South Africa. Jackson is said to have commented that at least they understood the story was not saying nice things about blindly following tradition, and that wasn’t good for the powers that were.

Pride and Prejudice (CBR11 #50)

Not a book cover, but you’ll just have to go with me on this one.

I have absolutely no idea how to review this book. Instead, I’ll tell you the story of my relationship with it.

In my sophomore year of high school we read Austen for the first time. I clearly remember our teacher (looking back he was young, with long hair) stalking around the room selling us on an author only some of us had heard of, and attempting to inspire in us the mental fortitude it takes a 15 or 16 year old to really battle with language 185 years old.

But I don’t remember with certainty which Austen it was. I *think* it was P&P but it could have just as easily been S&S as we read both with that teacher. Either way, I was hooked. It took some time to get comfortable with Austen’s style of prose (she uses very long sentences) and her setting (I hadn’t yet fully become the history nerd I am now) but once I sunk in it’s a relationship that has been strong and true for over 20 years.

The characters in P&P are what have always stuck with me. Each different version I take on, whether it’s the original, film and TV adaptations, or other books building on Austen’s world, there is still some character (or two) that pulls me in. I’m always surprised with which one stands to the forefront in each revisit, it isn’t usually the same one. The 2005 movie is all Darcy to me – I am with Matthew Macfayden in Darcy’s interior life as someone afraid of hurt and feeling trapped by honor and duty but intrigued by what is before him. The BBC miniseries is Elizabeth – feisty but not a firecracker, a person in possession of herself if not always her best mind. In past reads of the book I’ve ping ponged between the two, but often found myself mentally sitting with Mr. Bennet in his office watching the world go by and his family spin around him.

On my first ever solo trip out of the country I visited England after my junior year of high school (don’t worry overmuch, I was meeting a group), and purchased for myself a full set of Austen’s work as my souvenir. I’m sad to say not all of those books are with me any longer, including this one. But it still holds a very special place in my heart and I’m glad to revisit it time and again.

This book was read and reviewed (if you can call it that) as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.