Monthly Archives: April 2018

#CBR10 Review #27

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

You know how travelling forces you to make decisions about books? I had a terrible dilemma this last week. I’d been steadily reading and enjoying Alan Hollinghurst’s newest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, when we were packing to leave for Florida for four days. I had twenty pages left as of an hour before our Lyft picked us up. And I had to leave the book behind. It was agony. Thankfully, I got to finish it when we returned home on Friday. And what a worthwhile wait it ended up being.

The novel begins in the 1940s. Evert Dax, Freddie Green, and Peter Coyle are among a group of friends who notice that newcomer David Sparsholt makes quite a stir in their Oxford community. Both Evert and Peter are obsessed with David, and thus begins a brief encounter that changes their future for generations to come. The novel spans about 60 or more years and shows the ripple effects of the relationships the group develop as young adults and the impact on their children and grandchildren. I’m deliberately being vague, because this is a novel that is best discovered by unfolding the plot slowly.

Hollinghurst is an elegant writer, and The Sparsholt Affair is no exception. The title itself alludes to several wordplays, and it’s up to us to figure out what these are. He writes well about gay identity, and this book adds many facets to it, especially updated for the 21st century, when it is no longer a crime to openly identify as gay. He also does not return to the well of the AIDS crisis, but instead looks at other components of gay life in the UK and the tensions of political and cultural values. I really liked this book a lot, and I think it’s one of Hollinghurst’s finest.

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#CBR10 Review #26

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

I’d heard of Her Body and Other Parties because I’d heard of Carmen Maria Machado’s short story, “The Husband Stitch.” If you’ve read it, you’ll also want to read this incredible piece from Electric Literature, which comments on the significance of the piece and why it is so difficult for women to be believed. It struck an incredible chord. When I saw the book at an independent bookstore for a conference, I broke my no-buy rule and acquired it. I read it over the week of my Florida vacation and found it to be electrifying as a whole.

This is a collection of short stories, all different from each other. “The Husband Stitch” is incredible, but truthfully, they’re all memorable and fascinating. “Inventory” combines an inventory of sexual encounters with a dystopian and pandemic setting, something I had never considered. “Especially Heinous” reimagines Law and Order: Special Victims Unit from a gothic and phantasmagorical perspective. “Real Women Have Bodies” looks at a world where women fade away from their bodies with only spirits to reside. And “The Resident” looks at a woman who is a resident author at a mountain retreat and fears that her mind is slipping. Like I said, all the works are memorable, and there are only about eight stories, so they read fairly quickly.

Machado is an incredible writer. I don’t know what more to say besides that I devoured the collection and savored the writing all throughout. Machado combines the gothic and queer in ways I had never imagined. Her work is creepy and funny all at once. I look forward to her next writing venture, and I’ll be recommending Her Body and Other Parties to everyone.

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#CBR10 Review #25

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

I’m doing research in dystopian fiction, and I used an abstract for a conference to talk to my students about finding library database sources. One of my students came up to me after class and shyly offered up the title Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick and volunteered me her copy. It was incredibly sweet, and I have learned that when students want to share something (appropriately) personal with you, you don’t turn them down. I was delighted to read her copy and share my thoughts.

So, she forgot to tell me that in addition to dystopian fiction, Bick went all-in on zombie survival. Not my jam. I spent a lot of time reading with clenched teeth and furrowed brows, as well as what my husband refers to as my disdainful badger face. It looks something like this:

Britney-shade-face

What exactly made me squinty and disdainful? Well. Let’s unpack.

Alex (female) is suffering from a terminal brain tumor and has decided to spread her parents’ ashes into a fictional forest up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (trust me, I looked up the forest, and it’s not real, but the internet speculates that it might be the Porcupine Mountains. I’ve camped there, and while not really “mountains,” they are gorgeous). She encounters an older man, his beyond-bratty granddaughter, and her dead father’s dog from the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. And then, a weird thing happens. The man drops dead, Alex discovers a pounding headache, and a whole bunch of birds drop dead and animals go crazy. Alex discovers that she can smell again, and certain young adults have started cannibalizing others. She and the girl, Ellie, team up with a former soldier to try and make it to safety, but of course, they’re thwarted.

Like I said, zombie fiction is not my thing. World War Z did not go into a lot of gory or graphic detail, so that was okay, but Bick glories in gore. There was a description of a zombie-man tearing open a dog’s ribs which had me badger-facing all over the book. And there’s a boring sub-plot with a religious compound and a completely unnecessary love triangle that had me wishing for the return of zombie gore. The end of the novel is pretty shocking, too, although it’s pretty predictable. If you like gritty zombie gore and paint-by-numbers YA dystopian fare, then this is for you. Otherwise, skip it.

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#CBR10 Review #24

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

K has chosen The Martian Chronicles for our book club next week, and as soon as one of our titles is announced, I immediately request the book from the library in order to read it and keep up with my book clubs. I had read Fahrenheit 451 many years ago and loved it (I’m due for a re-read, I think), so I was excited to try out The Martian Chronicles. I got the 40th anniversary edition, in which Ray Bradbury explained the history of getting published, which was a sense of chance and luck at the same time. I had no idea that Martian Chronicles was his first book or that it is a collection of semi-related short stories, so it was fascinating to read about.

The book is a collection of short stories about the discovery, occupation, and abandonment of Mars by humans from earth. We get stories from Martians, stories from human astronauts and settlers, and stories about the fallout of the settlements. None of the characters who appear in one story cross over to another story, but we get a loose sense of continuity and narrative from the various stories that build on each other.

Bradbury highlights many themes in his stories, including colonialism, loneliness and isolation, fear, and tensions between the known and the unknown. He makes an interesting commentary on colonialism and the fallout of conquering and settling an area that does not belong to you. Some of the science fiction is a bit dated, but the many themes and the writing are quite skillful. I recommend the book.

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#CBR10 Review #23

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

What is better than Hark! A Vagrant? Why, a second collection of Kate Beaton comics, of course! There isn’t a whole lot to say that would be new from the first collection, but I am going to try my best. Forgive any squeeing I might do, because words don’t do this collection justice.

Beaton knows her audience well, and the hits keep coming. Bronte jokes, peasant jokes, revolutionaries, and feminist/suffragette panels abound. Beaton revives her Nancy Drew cover panels, which delighted me to no end. She also expands on her “Nemesis” story, which also delighted me. This time around, my favorite series was the panels on Ida B. Wells. They are funny, but also pointed and sharp. Wells did not receive her due in her lifetime, and I greatly appreciated reading about her life, writing, and activism.

I’m trying not to say too much without spoiling the fun for you, but definitely read the comics for yourself. This is a terrific continuation of Hark! A Vagrant. Beaton does not deviate from her formula but does give new material that is great fun and also thought-provoking. This is absolutely a terrific second entry in the series. I am looking forward to seeing what other books Ms. Beaton will come up with. I think that a takedown of more English writers is in order, especially since the Dickens humor is spot on. Personally, I would be okay with a lot more Jane Austen jokes, but that’s just me. Or Shakespeare humor—there is a wellspring of parody fun within the Shakespeare canon, and that would be wildly entertaining, in my opinion. Like I said, this is exactly my kind of nerdy fun, and I highly recommend it for other lovers of literature parodies and history.

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#CBR10 Review #22

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I’ve seen Kate Beaton comics throughout the internet before, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them. On my library display, someone had emblazoned Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops, so I thought I could use a little literary nerdy fun in my life. It’s clear that Beaton put her history degree and art/museum acumen to good use in her comics, and we are all the better for it.

Beaton gets me. There’s just no other way to say it. She makes bountiful history jokes, literary panels, and jabs at Canadian culture (she herself is from Nova Scotia). There are abundant panels about the Brontes and their work (never amiss), revolutionaries, suffragettes, and medieval culture. The “Nemesis” series are some of my favorites. I love, love, love the Nancy Drew cover histories that she draws—as a reader of the series growing up, I sometimes found the covers silly and over-the-top, and so, Ms. Beaton’s humorous take-down really tickled me.

But nothing, and I repeat, nothing, tops “Anne of Sleeves” for me. As a kid, I read Anne of Green Gables to pieces, and I wondered how gorgeous her dress would be, based on Anne’s ravings.

And then, I watched the mini-series.

anne-puffy-sleeves

I totally get why Marilla was huffy and indignant about them. They are majestically hideous. Beaton nails her skepticism.

Seriously, though, if you find yourself a lover of literary and historical jokes, you should definitely check out this collection. My husband shook his head at my hearty chuckling, but enjoyed the humor, too. I seriously want ALL of the Kate Beaton comics now.

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#CBR10 Review #21

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I read Homegoing in 2016, along with ElCicco and a host of others since then. I won’t recap the book for you, but have enclosed the link, if you’d like a refresher on my first review. When I re-read a book I’ve read for a previous CBR, I like to be in the habit of building on the initial review and thinking about what I’ve taken away on the second reading. I find that new thoughts will emerge. And they surely did for Homegoing.

This time around, I am less struck by the characters and more so by the idea of how we document and chronicle our histories. I was a history major in college (along with English), and one thing my professors impressed upon me was the many histories that existed alongside each other—it was the literate and the powerful that wrote the chronicles we have today, but they were not the only accounts. This is something that Gyasi takes seriously, as she chronicles the history of blackness in Ghana and in America. This time around, Kojo’s story stuck with me, because there is a tragic point but there seems to be no end. This is the way it was for people who were slaves or freed—they often had no way of tracing their past or predicting their futures, because they lived in such wildly unpredictable and dangerous environments.

This provoked a vibrant discussion at my library book club, and for good reason. Gyasi leaves you a lot to think about. She’s an incredible writer with an ambitious storytelling scope. I’m really eager to see what she comes up with next, and I highly recommend re-reading this book if you have already read it. Knowing what comes next makes the reading richer and more intricate, since you pick up on details you may otherwise have missed.

 

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