Normal People (CBR11 #20)

It has been a long time since I absolutely demolished a novel in less than 24 hours. I had waited months for my turn to come up on the library hold list for Normal People so a soon as I officially finished Good Omens I ignored the other books sitting on my kitchen table and settled in to see what jeverett15 and dAvid experienced that led them both to rating it so highly. I very quickly understood and am myself rating it five stars, rounding up.

This book has a seemingly simple premise: rich disaffected girl and popular working-class boy date, break up, and orbit each other through their college years. It sounds simplistic broken down to that level, because if it only existed on that level it would be a very simple novel that I would have maybe read but likely would have walked away from. Rooney instead imbues real, honest, and accurate depth into her characters and uses their on again, off again relationship to poke at larger truths.

Normal People looks at the ways we hurt ourselves and other people, and both at the same time. The plot often hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings, but Rooney stays away from my least favorite trope – she has her characters talk to each other, and want to communicate, and often try and fail. We experience with the characters the gulf between what is meant and what is understood and how that small difference can color years of our lives. There is betrayal, love, and how sometimes love isn’t enough to overcome our hurts and the walls we build between ourselves and the world around us, and even around the person we love most in the world.

When Marianne and Connell are close, they’re seemingly entirely in sync, but when things go wrong and they go their separate ways they are often destroying parts of themselves and their lives, and they seem incapable of seeing it. They can’t seem to stay away from each other either, needing some relationship with the other to serve as a touchstone to who they each are at the core of their beings, only feeling truly themselves when in relation to the other.

Rooney zeroes in on outwardly insignificant moments that are truly some of the most significant times in our lives and examines them, both from an incredibly close angle but also from a sometimes sterile distance. Mechanically she is choosing her phrasing, her language, her pacing, and her settings to do the heavy lifting but also leaves room for her narrative to breath, for the reader to bring themselves to the novel. As jeverett15 said in their review, she can break your heart in record time, and she does it with crisp, sparse language and emotional honesty. She writes with such precision and clarity that the shared territory becomes what matters and you are able to extrapolate the rest and find the empathy within for characters you don’t always think of in a very positive light.

The novel leaves the reader with a vague sense of what happens next, or what could happen next and I can see in that detail and so many other ones where dAvid felt that this is a harsher, more adult version of Eleanor & Park. Both books explore abuse, complex familial dynamics, fear of success, of feeling othered and both Rowell and Rooney write dynamic characters with finesse. It’s a very different feeling book to me, much more sorrowful and darker, but Normal People does feel like the continuation of a conversation Eleanor & Park was having with its audience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines) and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

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Good Omens (CBR11 #19)

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I often avoid reviewing a Book Club book before our discussion to save what I have to say until the conversation, or because I’m not sure what I want to say and am hoping the discussion will help clarify it for me. When I do review ahead of time I find myself leaving amorphous reviews without much substance, reviews that I look back on and think, but what did I really get out of that reading experience?

I’m hoping not to fall into either camp with Good Omens. I’ve read a bit of both Pratchett and Gaiman’s solo works and on the whole am a fan of both, so when the time came around to read this book I wasn’t worried about liking it, and my faith in my understanding of the writers’ styles and my affection for them wasn’t misplaced. I did enjoy this book. I enjoyed it even as I clocked the things about it that I didn’t like, that show just how far both these authors grew, and how our understanding about how to exist in the world without doing harm to others has grown.

I love a story of friendship, a narrative built around an adventure that isn’t just the hero’s journey (lord save me from pointless hero’s journey tales) and Good Omens delivers on that in spades. Its also a very telling satire on the human condition and how we interact with the larger forces of the universe, however we choose to define them. Its far from perfect, and I’m sure we’ll get into that in a few days during the #CannonBookClub discussion, but for right now I’m just going to luxuriate in the fact that the book exists at all as a testament to friendship, both on the page and behind it.

This book was read and reviewed (and book club mavened) as part of the chartiable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance

Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings (CBR11 #5)

Hildegard Of Bingen: Mystical Writings (Crossroad Spirtual Classics Series)

Every so often a book about faith sneaks into my reading. There was a time when I was much more involved in organized religion, but it has been a tough fit for me in the past decade or more. I have tended to hold my personal faith a little closer than that shared in a large gathering. The historian side of me is also always looking to learn more about the faith I was raised in and a couple of years ago when the ladies of the Stuff You Missed In History podcast did an episode on Hildegard of Bingen I paid specific attention. Here was a religious person from the better part of a thousand years ago who shared ideas that sound very familiar to the modern ear. I was intrigued.

I’m also embarking on the Reading Women challenge this year, and one of the tasks on that one is a translated book published before 1945. I took this as an opportunity to reach ALL the way back to Hildegard and the late 12th century and read some of her work directly, or as directly as possible when translated from Latin across 800 years. With that, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings by Hildegard of Bingen, edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies and featuring several translators published in 1990 ended up on my January to read list.

The first half of the book is a series of essays about Hildegard, her times, and the religious upheaval happening all around her both locally in Germany and stretching all the way to Rome and on to the Crusades. I am familiar with a bit of this, but it was nice to have it all packaged together as an extensive preamble to Hildegard’s own writings. The book is slim, my copy clocks in at less than 160 pages and about 60 of those were the preamble, so the writings we get are excerpts from her larger works. Hildegard wrote extensively after one of her visions instructed her to write down what she was experiencing (and she received support from local religious men). Her writings however weren’t limited in any way – she is writing about matters of state, the schism in the church with reigning popes and anti-popes, as well as the nature of faith and god, and two different medical texts.

I sat with this book for many days, pondering the nature of the divine tends to require slowing down and really absorbing what you are reading. I was also sitting on a federal petit jury during the week, weighing the evidence put in front of us and it was mentally exhausting. I don’t know that I’m any fonder of Hildegard now, but I do feel closer to a forebear in my faith. She was no nonsense in a really fun way, and I wish her books read as her letters do, I think they would be much more accessible, but I also understand the intense societal pressure to create as formal a writing as possible. Best of all to me, although they come to it from slightly different angles, she and Carl Sagan agree that we are in fact all made of star stuff.

Reading Women 2019 task 14: a translated book published before 1945

Read Harder Challenge: tasks 9, a book published before January 1, 2019 with less than 100 reviews on Goodreads, and 10, a translated book written or translated by a woman

This book was read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Completed 2018 Read Harder Challenge

My Read Harder Challenge 2018 is complete with 24 hours to spare. I appreciate that these 24 tasks push me to consider what I am reading, and give me a way to prioritize my choices. Below are all the books which I have read as of December 30, 2018 in attainment of these various goals.

I haven’t decided if I will continue with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge in 2019. I know that I will be working towards Reading Women’s 2019 Challenge though. We’ll have to see what the new year brings.

The Turn of the Screw (CBR10 #64)

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This was the Read Harder 2018 task I was looking least forward to, and I managed to push it off until the last possible moment, but at least I am completing the challenge this year. Task 24 was to “read an assigned book you hated (or never finished)”. In reality I have very few books that I never completed, and the ones that I hated I don’t really feel emotionally prepared to ever read again (Beloved is a tough book, The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald can fuck right off, and I’ve already read Lord of the Flies three times and The Metamorphosis twice so I feel as though I have done my time). It took months before I realized that I had a book sitting on my shelf that I had taken from my mother because I intended to get back to it all along, and just hadn’t yet. It was time, 20 years later, to give The Turn of the Screw another chance.

It wasn’t this book’s fault I never read it when it was assigned my sophomore year of high school. I missed the week we covered it in English as I was attending my grandfather’s funeral and my teacher exempted me from the assignments surrounding it as long as I did other parts of the unit. But Henry James, and his influence, are everywhere in the literary world of trans-Atlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he knew and influenced nearly every major writer on either side of the Atlantic during the same time frame.

The story concerns an unnamed governess who finds a position caring for two children in the English countryside, eight-year-old Miles and six-year-old Flora. Both children are sweet, and the governess feels an instant connection with the precocious Miles. He is supposed to be at boarding school but was expelled for mysterious reasons. The governess can’t understand what a boy as angelic as Miles could possibly have done to get expelled so suddenly and irrevocably.

As she watches the children, she notices a man watching them from afar. He frightens her, and she discovers from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that this shadow matches the description of the master’s former valet, Peter Quint. The governess begins to see another ghost: Miss Jessel, her predecessor. The governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair, and that both died mysteriously and that the two may have had an inappropriate relationship with the children. She begins to suspect that the children see the ghosts, too, and that the ghosts are determined to corrupt the children somehow. She vows to save them from these spectral predators from beyond the grave.

There has been debate over the years about whether the ghosts are real, or the governess is slowly losing her mind. Another one posits that the true villain of the story might be Mrs. Grose. It’s possible that Mrs. Grose, disgruntled at losing her place as the children’s primary caretaker slowly drives the governess to madness by planting disturbing ideas in her mind. These all fit in with what James is known for: describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters and making use of a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid in the discussion of a character’s psyche. This is on full display with this novel – we are left to puzzle out what we think is really happening, and the novel can be viewed from any number of vantage points. Its no wonder the ambiguity of his late works have been compared to impressionist paintings.

As far as the novel is concerned, I don’t think it has quite the same shock value it had when it was first published, but it still maintains an eerie quality. If gothic literature or classic ghost stories are your thing than you might want to add this to your list is you haven’t yet, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone else.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We begin our ELEVENTH year in the coming days and are always looking for new readers who want to review what they’ve read and help us raise money to say “fuck you” to cancer.

Calling Me Home (CBR10 #62)

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There are few things more disappointing than a book you had high hopes for letting you down. I really wanted to like this one, but the writing bothered me too much. The story is fine, not great but fine. There were a lot of stereotypical plot contrivances along the way. There were several times I rolled my eyes; popular media needs to stop perpetuating lazy stereotypes.

So, what is the story about? After hearing  a story how her grandmother fell in love with a young black man when she was a teenager author Julie Kibler took that inspiration and wrote a book about how that may have played out. We meet Isabelle McAllister as an elderly woman living alone in Texas and as the story unfold, we learn in flashbacks about Isabelle’s teenage years in small-town Kentucky in the 1930s, and the impossible romance that develops between her and Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s housekeeper. The secondary story is that of Dorrie Curtis, a single mother in her thirties and Isabelle’s present day hair stylist. In much the same way we learn about teenage Isabelle in her POV chapters we also learn some of the details of Dorrie’s life and the relationship between the two women, despite their different ages and races in her POV sections. Together, they are on a cross-country road trip to a funeral where the great reveal of Isabelle’s past will come to light.

Like I said before, the writing itself bothered me. I’m not a first-person lover, but I’ve warmed to it over time, however, deployed in less than spectacular ways it can become clunky and that is exactly what listening to this audiobook felt like. This book used a lot of informal speech instead of actual descriptions, which misses the beauty possible in describing feelings and situations when a story is told well in first person.  Structurally the flashback chapters are set up to be Isabelle telling Dorrie about her past in detail, but tonally it didn’t land. I found myself waiting desperately to get back to the Dorrie chapters to recap the Isabelle ones and move the plot forward.

It felt as if the author wanted to cram a ton of issues into one book simply because there were big issues surrounding the meat of her story. Some of the events—the bigotry, threats, and brutality—are familiar and predictable and I can see why that would appeal to most readers. Unfortunately, I am not most readers.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Want to join us in sticking it to cancer one book at a time? Registration for our ELEVENTH year is now open.