2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Quick and the Dead

Three very different teen girls, all motherless and strange, share one summer in the American desert. Full of vibrant supporting characters, poignant quips, and haunting imagery, The Quick and the Dead was a surprising and often uncomfortable read.

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Joy Williams’ three teen girls were an offputting mashup of spot-on depiction, and unbelievable diatribe megaphone. There were moments of pure familiar cringe for me as rebellious eco-terrorist Alice preached to disinterested adults (which definitely still happens to this near-30 year old adult). Likewise with the steely detachment of recently orphaned Corvus, and Annabell’s most annoying whining. I loved these moments; Williams can purely distill a previously ineffable feeling with just a quick phrase. She’s remarkably good at this throughout, exposing shivery truths using childish revelations.

There was something shameful about surviving sorrow. You were corrupted. She was corrupted. She was no good anymore. She was inauthentic, apocryphal. She wanted to be a seeker and to travel further and further. But after sorrow, such traveling is not a climbing but a sinking to a depth leached of light at which you are unfit to endure. And yet you endure there.

Despite the real joy of reading some of Williams’ passages, she’s also prone to going all Tom Robbins on me (at his best, brilliant. At his worst, ridiculous.) All the characters in The Quick and the Dead speak as if they are reading a speech written by a very creative mind. They speak over and above each other, in universal ideologies and proclamations, or deep into their own navels. The only narrating character who felt remotely real to me was Annabell’s widowed and coming-out father, and he spends the entire book haunted by the insufferable ghost of his dead wife. The main characters do much of this monologuing, but the worst are the supports.

I’ve seen what comes next. Vigils. Concern is the new consumerism. A person’s worth can be measured by the number and intensity of his concerns. Candles, lighting a candle, confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual’s important. It’s coming back as a force in people’s lives. Its role is being acknowledged. It’s the keystone for tomorrow’s dealings in an annexed and exploited world. And holding a candle, cradling a little flame with others holding their candle, cradling their little flame gives people the opportunity to experience something bigger than themselves without surrendering themselves to it.

Ugh. Look how long that block of text is. I hate paragraphs like this, even when they are spoken by evangelists (which this one is). I hate it when authors rant. It is definitely a style many people enjoy, and power to them. But it makes me feel the same way as when I’m stuck talking to a drunk stranger at a dull house party.

The Quick and the Dead was equal parts brilliant and boorish. Williams is an astonishing writer; for those who like to see an author in every spoken line, in every desiccated coyote and nursing home scrubs color, I can see how Williams would be a fave. Not my fave, but undeniably brilliant.

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2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

Haven: Beards and Bondage

After a horrifying attack leaves Claudia bleeding on the front stoop of Shepard’s cabin, the two are linked by the trauma that took Claudia’s brother’s life and forced Shepard to kill her attacker. And even though Claudia is a city-dwelling fashionista and Shep is a reclusive nature photographer, the enter into a passionate and complicated deal to find solace and companionship in one another for one week.

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First, my personal distinctions between romance and erotica: When great sex leads to love, I consider it erotica. When love leads to great sex, I consider it romance. I tend to grade romance on a different curve than erotica; I expect romance to spend much more time establishing characters, relationship details, and emotions, and I expect the plot to exist beyond the purpose of sparking a relationship. For erotica, I don’t have those expectations; I want exciting smut with recognizable and interesting humanity on display in the downtime between sex scenes. (If anyone is following my Instagram, you saw that I classified this review as a fantasy review. That’s kind of a joke, but for the most part, I do read erotica as a genre of fantasy.)

Haven lacks abundant artistic prose, the plot and resolution are both quick and extreme, and the characters’ emotional trauma is kind of fixed by kinky sex. It wouldn’t make a great romance by my standards. Luckily, Haven is very good erotica.

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The characters are sexy and confident in their needs and feelings, the plot brings a lovely emotional care context on top of a very caring BDSM relationship, and the setting is equal parts peacefully calm and steamy.  The BDSM sex featured here is explicitly consensual and depicted more accurately than other things you can find in a lot of popular BDSM writing, and both Shep and Claudia show mutual respect, joy, and meaning in their relationship. Maybe my favorite thing is that neither character sacrifices core parts of themselves to be with the other one.   Haven also features an interracial relationship (Claudia is black), female characters that don’t just talk about men to each other, men that talk about emotions with each other, a big cuddly dog, and Netflix.

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If you’re looking for a happy, emotional BDSM (light) that you don’t have to turn your feminist blinders on to enjoy, Haven: Beards and Bondage by Rebekah Weatherspoon is it. Sexy characters, sexy consent, sexy BDSM, and quite a bit of heart.

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(Shoutout to @mariannereads for this swoon-worthy photo for Shep and Claudia!)

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Vegetarian

After a series of nightmares, Yeong-hye becomes convinced to stop eating meat. Her unconventional and subversive choice throws the people around her into chaos, forcing her to take her personal choice into more extreme and frightening forms of rebellion. This modern South-Korean novel explores Yeong-hye’s choice through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister to provide an allegory of modern Korean culture. The Vegetarian turns an unflinching eye on social isolation, imprisonment, and individuality that transcends culture and speaks to human nature in a deeply personal and frightening way. Read my First Look here.

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Simply put, this book messed me up. It is short and fascinating enough to read in one sitting, and that’s what I did. Yeong-hye’s personal life choice, and how the people around her respond to it, is heartbreaking. The societal response to Yeong-hye has little to do with vegetarianism itself, and more to do with individualism, making this book all too familiar. Yeong-hye’s story is like watching a bird throw itself against a cage until all her bones are broken, and then realizing that every bird feels that same desperate need for freedom. The solution that Han Kang offers to our desire to be free is nothing short of devastating*.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

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This book reached into me and activated a seething and quiet rage that I think many people, and specifically many women, will recognize as an animal we cradle deep inside ourselves. How we deal with that animal, by letting it free, by feeding it like a pet, or by burying it, is explored through Han Kang’s various characters, most devastatingly in Yeong-hye’s sister in the last section.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Many reviews reference Kafka’s Metamorphosis when discussing this book, which I honestly feel is a disservice. Metamorphosis never spoke to me like this book immediately did. The choice to never let Yeong-hye narrate her own story adds another layer of heartbreak, anger, and strangeness, and an additional layer of feminist critique. As I read through reviews for this story, I see a distinct difference in how men and women review this book, and I can’t help but believe that Kang speaks to a distinctly feminine despair and expectation to shoulder the everyday burdens that crush us. Abutilon_-_Flowering_maple

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This short book packs a gut-punch that left me in an existential funk for days. While it is not a happy read, I think it is one book I will be forever grateful to have found. It may make you want to abandon everything and everyone in your life, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of book a person needs to read.  The Vegetarian is powerful existential horror with a distinctly feminist lens. It is also just an excellent story, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Scent Notes: Fresh blood, flower-painted skin, and the forest after rain

*CW: The Vegetarian spends a long time with suicidal ideation, and features suicide attempts in the form of cutting, hanging, jumping, and starvation. In my interpretation, Kang does not discourage any of these behaviors. 5

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate tells the strange and luscious story of the De la Garza family in Mexico at the turn of the century. Tita, forbidden to marry by the family matriarch and all but relegated to the kitchen, finds she is able to express her true self through cooking. When family and guests eat Tita’s food, they are overcome with overwhelming disgust, lust, anger, and sadness. Each chapter features a specific dish, and relates both Tita’s personal journey into a modern Mexican woman, but also the story of Mexico as it undergoes a revolution on the outskirts of Tita’s life. (Read my First Look here)

I’ll admit that the first four times I tried to find this book at my library, I thought they didn’t carry it. I thought they only carried a sort of study guide for book clubs, with monthly recipes. Turns out, that’s the book. Don’t be fooled like I was.

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help…Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul…If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.

Esquivel does a lovely job of throwing the reader directly into the kitchen to hear these tales. The narration for each chapter truly feels like a person relaying a recipe for you, and getting sidetracked on family tall-tales. Each chapter is about food, but also love, and also womanhood, and also revolution. The writing is sensual in every meaning of the word. There are scenes that are embarrassing and gross, and others erotic and heartbreaking. There is magical realism here, and unlike another MR behemoth (100 Years of Solitude) this magic feels much more human and maybe feminine. There is magic in Tita’s cooking, but also in all food, in sex, in stories, and in relationships.

I always want more magic in my magical realism. However, it wouldn’t make sense for the narrator of this tale to fawn over the magical details. Everything here comes through a sort of distanced retelling of old family stories; questioning the details is not only rude, but detrimental to the point of the retelling. The food and emotions are an exception, but overall this story is not as richly textured as others in the genre; settings and characters were both slightly shallow and one-dimensional. In these ways, LWfC feels more like a tall-tale than magical realism, but either way I enjoyed it.

This is a quick and fun read, with a little bit of heartbreak, lots of good food, and some sexy and funny stuff thrown in. Great book for all those aspiring kitchen witches out there. If you want to try out Magical Realism but don’t quite have the gumption to try 100 Years of Solitude right away, this is a great introduction to the genre.

Scent Notes: wet masa, sweat, crushed rose petals

3.5