Review: The F Word

tl;dr: formerly overweight woman is plagued by high school broken heart

The Story:

Finishing this book was a struggle.

I’m not totally sure if it’s because the ‘women’s fiction but not romance’ genre, otherwise known as chick lit, is just not for me anymore, or if the book is actually not that good. I didn’t connect with any of it, and not because the gist of the story wasn’t interesting. It’s because the actual story fell very flat for me, mostly because I kept getting pulled out of it by visceral disgust or general disagreement with some of the things that were plied off as truth.

The F Word is apparently a follow-up to Conversations with a Fat Girl, which I didn’t read. That story is about Olivia’s friend, and while Olivia is a character in that book, the friend at the center of the first book is barely even mentioned in this one, which is what it is. This book takes place ten years after the first one. Olivia has been living in her Hollywood life with her doctor husband and working in a PR firm for celebrities. We are supposed to be making parallels between Caroline Lang, Olivia’s actress client going through a divorce, and Olivia herself. They both maintain an icy I’m-better-than-you demeanor, although it’s hard to tell from Caroline whether she means it or if it’s just a coping mechanism left over from her lonely childhood. Olivia, on the other hand, is just mean. She’s mean to her socialite couple friends, and makes very little effort to have friends of her own. She seems closer to her mom and her mom’s friends, although she doesn’t bare herself to anyone. Literally. She’s been married ten years and her husband has never seen her naked.

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Review: The Girl on the Train

I the-girl-on-the-train-coverwent into this book not knowing a thing about it, and I think that played in its favor. I wasn’t expecting any of the twists and turns, and so I was just along for the ride.

This book is from the perspective of 3 women whose lives become intertwined. Rachel is the alcoholic woman scorned, who is still hanging on to the hope that she will be reunited with her ex-husband. Megan is the neighbor that Rachel watches on her daily commute on the train, imagining the rich life that she is leading and the husband that dotes on her. Anna is the other woman, trying to pursue her own happily ever after while being pulled between the narratives surrounding each of the first two.

Without giving much away, the story builds through the variety of viewpoints and time periods to build a really interesting mystery. I did find the ebook format to be not conducive to being able to follow the timeline though. In a print book, it would be easy to flip back and see where we left off time wise with each narrator, and even to the beginning of the story. After awhile, I tried to ignore the time stamps, but there are pretty important to the way that the story is constructed. I think this would be even worse on audio. Particularly confusing is when the story jumps from the present to the past and back to the present, and I was confused about how much time had passed between the two present day chapters. Each chapter is broken into days, and those days are broken into morning and evening, or sometimes morning and afternoon, or some combination. There was a lot of going back and forth that disrupts the flow of the reading experience, as I was trying to place where I was in the timeline.

This book uses the red herring device a lot. I can see how some readers would be put off by this, but I thought it added a lot of layers to the story and they weren’t too disruptive. It was good to see the viewpoints of the same events from three sides, also.

This is a layered, complicated story that I really enjoyed. This review is purposely vague because most of the enjoyment that I got from it was the experience of peeling away those layers and building upon the story in order to get to the final reveal. The ending itself was just okay. Sometimes I can imagine a better way for the story to end, but in this instance it may be the best that it could be. The way that I thought it was going to go would have been really melodramatic and cringe-worthy, and I’m glad it didn’t go that way.

5 stars.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: The Nightingale

NightingaleThis book is a long, sweeping historical drama about love, family, and war. It takes place in France during the Nazi occupation during World War II. The story goes back and forth between two estranged sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, who are dealing with feeling abandoned by their father and each other along with the increasing desolation and hopelessness of war.

Vianne watches her husband and all the men in her small village leave to fight for France. She continues to try and keep her daughter safe despite soldiers moving in and food and supplies becoming scarce. Isabelle can’t stand to watch by and do nothing, so she begins to work for underground networks and aid the resistance. The narrative jumps forward to the present day (well, 1995) life of one of the women a couple of times, although it isn’t clear which sister it is until the very end.

I wasn’t really aware of how much France had been affected by WWII and the Nazis, so this was a new angle on the war for me. I read The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult last year, which had a lot of the same historical events happening with it, although Picoult’s book has more of the Gestapo’s point of view than this book does (though still not a lot). This book deals mostly with the two sisters and how their relationship to each other changes throughout the war. There are some side plots, but family is the prominent theme in the book. Also the risks we take to protect those we love and also to believe in love at all. Isabelle falls in love with another member of the resistance, but he pretends he doesn’t feel the same in order to make it easier if one of them perishes, for example. A mother’s love for her children and the risks that she takes (or, doesn’t take) in order to ensure their safety is a recurring plot thread.

The book is depressing, and the behavior from the Nazi soldiers made me feel stabby. There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as people die, are killed, or are otherwise abused at the hands of the soldiers. It feels bleak at times. But throughout it all, there is a glimmer of hope in humanity. There are a lot of low lows in this book, but it ends on an uplifting and sweet tone. I highly recommend this book if you want to be swept up in a story about loss and love.

5 stars.

This book fulfills the book set in a place you’ve always wanted to visit requirement for the challenge.

Review: Penelope

13490638This book includes an absurdist play (Caligula) with a demented director, and it seems like perhaps the author was going for some sort of absurdist story to go with it. Penelope is a story about a freshman’s first year at Harvard University, except it doesn’t really follow most people’s idea of what that would entail. Honestly, her experience somewhat resembles mine. Not in the details, but in the broader sense.

Penelope is cautiously optimistic when she arrives at Harvard, but since she isn’t a legacy student, she really doesn’t know what is going on. It appears that most of the orientations and things are much more important than she is lead to believe by the information packages she receives. She quickly feels like she is missing out on forging new friendships. She is reluctantly embraced by some guys in her dorm, one of which is obviously attracted to her. She begins to navigate classes and dining hall experiences with unwanted advances from her TF (teaching fellow, like a grad assistant) and her neighbor. She has a chaste affair with a European gentleman. Her roommates are not into her at all.

Aside from several men trying to aggressively court her, I can understand her loneliness and anguish at not having had the college experience that I hoped for. The part that I can’t really relate to is how she reacts to it. She seems fairly oblivious until the end when she “realizes” that she is not making any inroads in these various relationships. She barely has any sort of character arc at all. The whole thing is somewhat depressing but none of the people that she meets are nice at all, and most of them are downright awful. The academic portion is pretty unrealistic too, as are the course titles, but I feel like that was an intentional choice meant to show that Harvard academics are pretentious and not really worth anything in the real world. It’s part of why I think that the absurdist play is supposed to be a reflection of the world of this book.

There really isn’t much more to say about the  book. Apparently there is a book group discussion guide and I’m really curious to look at it and see what there is even to discuss about this book. It was not what I was expecting based on the cover art – which goes to show that you really shouldn’t base a book on its cover.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the book based entirely on its cover requirement for the challenge.

Review: The Heart Goes Last

Content warning: major spoilers near the end of the review!

Heart-Goes-Last_Atwood-2I usually really enjoy Margaret Atwood books, but this one left me feeling a little dissatisfied. The premise itself is very interesting. It’s a dystopian near future, where there’s been a horrible economic downturn and large cities are now ghost towns of vigilante youths and people living in their cars. The book follows Charmaine and Stan, a former middle class married couple that are running out of money and options. Charmaine works at a dirty diner/brothel and sees a commercial for an experimental community that offers jobs and security to everyone it accepts. So they sign up for Positron and Consilience – a duel community where residents live half the month in an actual prison and the other half in the adjacent community.

The plot begins to get sinister from there, where there are red hot affairs, spies, executions, and lifelike sex robots. And many Elvis impersonators, but yeah. It would take a long time to really detail all the plot because it is quite intricate. Atwood interweaves the perspectives of both Charmaine and Stan as different chapters throughout the book, and even if the audio book wasn’t narrated by both genders, I think it would be easy to follow along. They each have a unique voice and temperament, which comes across in their chapters. She also only gives the reader the same information that each character actually has, so as you are unfolding the story there is a layer of suspense as you don’t really know what’s happening.

So, yes, this book is masterfully crafted, as many of Atwood’s books are. But it just doesn’t deliver the same punch that many of the other books of hers that I’ve read have. A large part of that is the operation that Charmaine may or may not have undergone. When I believed she had, it felt icky. When it is revealed at the very end that she hadn’t, I just felt cold. I think particularly the reaction of Stan was unsettling. He is practically misogynist, and he is supposed to be the hero of this story. Well, not even practically – he is. He has several rape fantasies towards Charmaine and other women, and even when he believes that Charmaine is his willing (albeit lobotomized) sex slave, he is unhappy about it. He treats Charmaine like dirt, and is surprised that she had an affair and also “killed” him. For all of the book’s social commentary about the treatment of women, it doesn’t do a lot to propose an alternative.

I went back and forth on the rating for this book. It is definitely well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking. All good things that I look for in a novel. But that ending – and really, the final few chapters – brought it all down for me. It turns out that the book is divided into 5 parts, and each had been released over time through a service called Byliner. That service recently shut down, and so Atwood decided to release the book as a legitimate release, with the final 5th part included for the first time. It does make sense, then, why that ending feels really disjointed with the rest of the story. In the end, I decided not to weigh too heavily on the final chapters, but it definitely still colored how I feel in total.

3 stars

This book fulfills the book published this year requirement for the challenge.

Review: The Martian

the-martian-coverThere are so many things about this book that make it unlikely that I would have read and enjoyed it, it seems strange that I would have happened upon a recommendation that intrigued me so much that I opted to actually read it. First, it’s about space. Space is not only a topic that I don’t seek out, but I actively avoid it. I frequently lament that we should forget about space and focus on the planet that we have. Second, it’s about being stuck in space, which is something that brings up feelings of anxiety in me. And third, it’s heavy in the science, which normally would make me fall asleep while reading. Despite all of these things that I normally don’t like and try to avoid, this was a really fantastic book.

Part of the appeal of this book is the humorous way that the protagonist shapes the beginning of the narrative. I think the lack of context in the beginning (it starts off with a series of log entries by Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars, and later fills in third person omniscient narrative) is actually a selling point to non-technical readers. The book doesn’t waste time filling in the blanks and gets straight to the problem of the book. We don’t even really get what went wrong with the mission that left Watney stranded until about midway through the book. It keeps the pace brisk, yet with enough hand-holding to keep the interest of a lay reader.

The book follows a formulaic narrative that could maybe get a little tiresome if it wasn’t for the humorous asides and everyman perspective we get from Watney. Something goes wrong, Watney panics. He comes up with a risky yet plausible plan. It mostly works, although a few things fail. He complains about 70s pop culture. Something else breaks, and we begin again. This general idea repeats about 4-5 times throughout the book, but somehow it isn’t as noticeable until you begin to describe the plot to someone else.

I have mixed feelings about the ending, but not because it wasn’t what I hoped for. Perhaps because it was incredibly predictable with no last minute twists, it didn’t have as much of an impact. It’s not a book that really sticks in your mind or that delivers a big punch. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it doesn’t have a WOW factor.

One thing that this book does incredibly well is have a diverse group of characters who have believable motivations and personalities. There was an overwhelming amount of white guys, but that is unfortunately pretty reflective of space exploration in general. Watney’s main contact at NASA is someone of Indian heritage named Venkat Kapoor, there are several Asians both on NASA’s team and in China (duh), where some of the story takes place. Apparently the character of Mindy Park is Korean, which I couldn’t tell from reading, but that’s also pretty cool. There’s also a German crewmember on the Ares 3 mission.

I’m planning to see the movie and maybe get some more context and visual help on some of the more sciencey things, and see how it compares to the picture in my head of the story. For a book like this, I felt like maybe what I was imagining was pretty far off the mark since I don’t have any love for space, and therefore, very little context over what elements of the story of purely fiction or what is science.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: Beloved

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This review was kind of a hard one to write, because my feelings on the book are a little mixed. There’s part of me that can recognize the genius in this book and see why it has become part of the American literature elite, why it appears on so many syllabi, and how it has received all the accolades that it has. But the other part of me just didn’t enjoy it at all. And not for the obvious reason – that the subject matter is about as enjoyable as a funeral – but because it just wasn’t a novel that really got to me the way I like a serious novel to get to me. It was so confusing and vague that I had a hard time knowing exactly what was happening, and that seriously impacted how I experienced it.

The book is a strange mixture of slavery narrative, a story about motherhood and risking everything to protect your children, and a ghost story about mistakes coming back to hurt you. The part about the slavery is less a history lesson and more of a backdrop, which is a common criticism of the book but not one that bothered me. What bothered me was that I couldn’t follow the through-line at all. I ended up having to read a summary in order to figure out exactly what happened, because it wasn’t clear at all. There were some parts that were repeated over and over so there was no mistaking what had happened, but I felt like those were ancillary to the story. The actual story of what happened to these people was vague and fuzzy. This was, perhaps, by design, because the book is just as much about memory as it is about anything else, and how trauma shapes those memories. It was, however, a fatal flaw for me, because without understanding the true horror of what happened, the act that Sethe takes to protect her children (namely, murder of one and attempted murder of the rest of her children when the slave owner finds her) seemed too rash and almost inexplicable. Almost as though the event was just tossed in for sport or sensationalism, when the entire book actually hangs on this one incident.

The infanticide is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped and killed her two-year-old daughter rather than let her experience the horror of slavery. Toni Morrison based her entire story on this, and of a vision or idea she had of a ghost coming out of the water – the ghost of the child that had been killed, all grown up and back for … revenge? Reunion? It’s hard to say. This is not the part that turned me off. It’s admittedly the minutiae – what happened to Halle? Was Sethe raped? Why does it mean that they “took her milk”? Was Beloved real? Did she become pregnant? How exactly did the escape from Sweet Home go? Did I even read this book, or did I just imagine that I did? The mysticism and vagueness of some of the plot doesn’t bother me as much, but I have to say that I was so confused that I didn’t really grasp what I was reading.

I don’t like to waste time re-reading books, because there are so many books to read and one’s life is only so long. But I feel like in order to understand the basic plot of this book, several readings are in order. And if you have to really dig into a summary or re-readings in order to understand the general thread of what happened, I feel like that is a major failure.

I find it difficult to really pinpoint or make clear what I disliked about this book so much, because as I describe it, it seems powerful and amazing. But that just did not carry over in the actual reading of it. Important Novels (with an uppercase I) should have a power to sweep you away and give you something to turn over in your mind, but all the thoughts I had over this book were less of thinking about issues that it could have raised and more about what exactly did I just read?

3 stars

This book fulfills the based on a true story requirement for the challenge.

Review: Eleanor & Park

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I was expecting to really like this book, and it is a fairly decent one. But it didn’t live up to the hype that proceeded it. It was definitely ruined for me by a random comment by someone who said they cried – no sobbed – at the end. I kept waiting for something big and crazy and heartbreaking to happen. I kind of felt like this book had Chekhov’s gun in it. A gun literally did go off midway through the book, but it had no consequence. But nothing really happens. Two kids meet, somehow become obsessed with each other by the process of just being repeatedly exposed to each other, and then her home life is abusive and crazy and dangerous so she runs. And … then they sort of move on but not really.

The focus here is on the love story between Eleanor and Park (I kept wondering if Park was his full name or if it was implied that it was a shortened version of something, since his brother is only referred to as Josh the entire time). All the other stories happening around them (which were, frankly, more interesting), are never explored. There was stuff with Park’s Korean mom, what happened between Eleanor’s mom and just about everyone, how Park’s parents met, who was behind all the sabotage in Eleanor’s gym class… And in the final few chapters, we don’t even get to know what happens to all of Eleanor’s brothers and sister. Why did her mom even end up with Richie? So many unanswered questions.

The book was fairly well-written. It was pretty repetitive, but that seemed to be a deliberate narrative choice. It was sort of like journal entries, mostly in a recent present, linear fashion, but sometimes going backwards to fill in holes in the plot. I normally don’t like blatant exposition, but I just felt like a lot of the interesting parts of the story were just left out to focus on the romance.

I think the most disappointing part for me was that things were really ramping up in the last third of the book and then it all just fizzled pretty pathetically. I was so on the edge of my seat (mostly because I was expecting someone to get killed), and then it turned out to be no big deal. Expectations definitely played a role here, so I can’t blame it all on the book. I was definitely intrigued by it, and the ending is also not super disappointing compared to other books I’ve read. There’s a flicker of hope at the end, which I think would play really well on a movie screen. Apparently, one is in the works, so I would be interested to see that. I hope they address what happens to those kids.

4 stars.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

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I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table in 9th or 10th grade, reading this book. I was eating cereal or something. But despite that, I remembered very little of what happened in the book. The details that I thought I did remember were completely off. For example, I swear that I thought it was a mockingbird that was putting the gifts inside the tree because those birds collected shiny things. (A quick internet search tells me that might be magpies.) I had also remembered something going down near a jail or a street, which could be two different events that I smooshed together as one in my memory.

Despite how much I was apparently not paying attention the first time I read this book, I felt like it was really beautifully written and had a lot of interesting characterization. The viewpoint of Scout is well-articulated as coming from the memory of a child. The book also brings up a lot of topics, which made book club very interesting. Besides the obvious topic of racism in America, this also brought up classism, gender stereotyping, and empathy towards people that are different from you. I think what makes this book so great is that it is a fully contained story, but you can pick off little bits of it to chew on, or use it as a springboard for a discussion on a variety of themes. No wonder it keeps being used as required reading in schools. There is a lot here!

There are two downsides to this book, and it may be coming from my viewpoint in 2015. First, I felt like while it did sort of touch on how you can be “a girl” and prefer overalls to dresses, some of the points about women (particularly the “place” of women in the private sphere) seemed to be in agreement with the division. Also, while the book takes a very liberal view of black people in America compared to the time, they are still treated as “other”. It’s not even really specific or pointed out, but it’s simply a given that white and black people don’t mix socially and that is never condemned. Maybe that is how Harper Lee thought, maybe she agreed with “separate but equal”. It’s hard to say.

Often most people point to Boo Radley as the most prominent figure in this book, but really it fairly ancillary to the plot. The curiousity of the children towards him is a running theme throughout the beginning mostly, but he is introduced mainly to be their savior toward the end when Mr. Ewell comes after the siblings. I would like to read more about him, actually. He sounds like a pretty interesting guy.

I’m torn on whether or not I will read Go Set A Watchman. There’s some controversy as to whether Harper Lee actually wanted the book to be published or if she was manipulated in her feebler state of mind. I definitely think it is okay to change your mind after many years, but it does seem a little sketchy. Either way, her first (and for 50+ years, only!) novel still holds up as a fantastic piece of literature.

5 stars.

This book fulfills the Pulitzer Prize-winning book requirement for the challenge.

Review: Still Alice

Still Alice cover

I knew that this book was about a woman who slowly descends into Alzheimer’s disease, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so profound about the meaning of life. Alice Howland discovers she has early on-set Alzheimer’s disease shortly after her 50th birthday, when she is in the prime of her career. Her children have recently moved on into adulthood and she and her husband John are empty-nesters, with prestigious careers at Harvard University. The diagnosis shakes her to her core, and John is firmly in denial throughout most of the book.

While I really enjoyed a lot of the story that centered around an understanding of what it may feel like to have Alzheimer’s (because we really won’t ever know), I think part of the story that really captivated me was the reaction from her family. Her relationships at the beginning of the book are so different from the end. Her two eldest children, Anna and Tom, are closer to Alice than Lydia, the “wayward” youngest, who has defied her mother’s expectations for her and moved to Los Angeles in order to begin a career as an actress. Alice has spent most of her life deep into higher education, and she places high importance on it. It seemed to be a personal slight to her that Lydia dismisses it out of hand. But, as Alice loses more and more of her memory and “self”, Lydia is the one that seems to deeply understand her, or at least is interested in meeting her where she is.

Alice’s relationship with John is probably the saddest part of the entire novel. At first, he rejects the diagnosis outright. He wants to meet with the doctor himself, and argues over and over. When Alice has a DNA test done and it reveals that she has a genetic mutation found in many Alzheimer’s patients, John is on a new mission to find some kind of cure or treatment. He begins researching it with as much fervor as he does with his Harvard laboratory experiments. But as Alice descends farther and farther into her disease, John retreats from her more and more. He clearly feels like her handicap is slowing him down. He can’t stand to be around her. He won’t watch her take her medications. And near the end, when she can’t remember the names of her family, or even that she is related to these people, he moves to New York City for a new job and leaves Alice behind.

One of the plot threads that runs throughout is Alice’s plan to take her own life once her symptoms become out of hand. She sets an alarm on her Blackberry to ask her every morning to answer 5 basic questions: What month is it, Where is my office, Where do I live, How many children do I have, and When is Anna’s birthday. The document instructs her to find a bottle of sleeping pills and take them all when she can no longer answer the questions. The Blackberry unfortunately meets an untimely demise in the freezer, but while poking around on her computer some time later, she happens upon the document, entitled Butterfly (an allusion to her mother’s prized necklace that she has taken to wearing). She tries to carry out the instructions in the document, but her forgetfulness (and possibly John’s removal of the pills) prevents her from completing the task.

This book is important, I think, for families that have a member who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, or even someone in the early stages of diagnosis. There is an empathy that comes from reading about this experience, even if it can never be verified that this is actually how it feels.

I checked off the box for something that scares me, because the idea of one day having Alzheimer’s, or caring for someone that does, is really frightening. It does run in my family, although I don’t think I’ll be having my DNA tested. (Like Lydia, I’d rather not know.) But somehow, this book has tempered the fear. It would still be not the most awesome outcome, but maybe it wouldn’t be that terrible.

5 stars

This book completes the a book that scares you and a book that made you cry.