Category Archives: Book I’ll Forget I Read

The Witch Elm: So. Slow.

Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.

Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).

I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Mystery, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

I Let You Go: Mystery! Thrills! Daring Escapes!

I Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh, is totally silly and totally fun and I listened to it on audiobook and then book an ebook version for the cottage because I can read faster than anyone can read to me, and I wanted to know! what! happens! next!

Oh I get it, it’s plenty flawed with damsels in distress, and deceit, and assumptions about women-and-work. But it’s still… so fun. Like when Patrick-the-vet gets introduced as a character and his blond hair is waving in the wind and sun dappled skin is glowing, you’re just like… romance!

I’d caution ever reading this with expectations to think deeply about anything. And strong warnings about descriptions of domestic violence and the death of children that are difficult and could easily make the book one you’d rather skip.

That said, if you do choose it, I’d hazard a guess you stay up late to finish it because It Has All the Plot! Plot! Plot!

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The Girl With the Pearl Earring & Madam Bovary: What happens when I drink too much.

I didn’t set out to read Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring in combination with Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (WHICH as it turns out, I read already  but didn’t realize it until like page 200 both because of a terrible memory and because the book isn’t that memorable). And sure, Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century, and Bovary in the 19th, so not a direct historical overlap, but the books share some of the same concerns with Honour and Fallen Women and how to preserve morality by shaming women and their sexuality.

Because I read them in sequence (and Flabuert, obvs, in translation) I couldn’t help but draw comparisons (btw: why do we draw comparisons? It’s a strange verb choice and I’d like it explained. Maybe it has roots in tracing paper?). Similar plot set up: respectable woman (in the case of Pearl, respectable maid, but still) catches the eye of powerful man, powerful man proves enticing. Then the books diverge in their responses. While our maid protagonist, Greit, totally wants to sleep with Vermeer (the painter), she resists – or they resist – and instead marries the butcher (like how much more of a contrast to romance do you need than fancy painter versus Butcher) and prospers because of it (like she gets to eat meat for the rest of her life). Emma as we know, dies penniless and alone because of her adulterous and lavish ways. Differences aside, both are unhappy and feel cheated out of their true desires because of restrictive expectations for women’s behaviour.

And I’m sure there’s some great and lasting moral lesson in both tales that has startling resonance in 2019 – something about how women continue to have their bodies, sexual desires and aspirations policed by a misogynistic state – but yawn. I wasn’t into the morality tale of either and mostly felt frustrated and annoyed for both characters, but also for the enduring ‘present’ of both ‘historical’ tales (knowing of course that Flaubert isn’t historical fiction!).

Maybe it’s a sign I need to be reading more speculative fiction where gender is exploded or women all have tails and use these tails to strangle things/people that get in their way. I don’t know. It could also be the three cups of coffee.

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Filed under Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

The Female Persuasion: You can be a feminist and still hate this book. I hope.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion is a hot book of this summer. It’s getting all kinds of press, and hits on all the right issues to get people reading: Trump, feminism, Trump, millennials, Trump, feminism. And it does a few things that make it worth talking about, but it is generally bloated and boring and an unapologetic ode to white, middle class feminism (#notthatthere’sanythingwrongwiththat).

Our protagonist, Greer, is an up and coming millennial in search of her “outdoor voice” (I cannot even begin with the over used ‘metaphor’ in this book of the outdoor voice. There are chapters titled ‘outdoor voice’ in case you missed the point that This Is A Woman Claiming Her Right to Speak and Be Heard). She meets famous second wave feminist Faith Frank and believes Faith – her mentor! her vision of power! her inspiration! – can provide her life with direction and meaning. Faith, on the other hand, is busy making compromises and doing what needs doing in order to advance equality for women. She’s a stalwart of the old guard, and also an embodiment of the limitations of idealistic politics. Which come on. Let’s be clear with one another: compromises will be made. Need to be made.

Then there’s Cory and his relationship with Greer, and his mother, and his brother. And the sort of man we want feminist men to be. And the queer best friend who takes her time finding herself, but ultimately does because she’s true to her values and has an inner core of resilience we can only hope to emulate after years of therapy. And the mega rich philanthropist who tries to redeem himself by throwing money at the problem of inequality (without *cough* actually giving up any of his privilege).

There’s enough there that it should be good. I mean it’s all Zeitgeist all the time. And yet. And yet. It’s just so… boring. I found Greer insufferable. I mean I GET IT. You need to learn to speak up for your own ideas. You need to find your way. Bleh bleh bleh. I don’t know. It’s probably me and the circles I travel in, but no one is spitting their drink across the table when I let slip that I’m a feminist. And the millennials I know (fine fine, I’m a millennial, though C. would point out that I’m not a *real* millennial because I was born in ’84 and so am on the cusp and besides I have a proper middle class job and can barely use my smartphone and I loathe collaboration) are mad and should be that they can’t find permanent jobs, or buy houses, or pay for childcare (oh wait, none of these issues come up for Greer – her issues are all about whether her fancy pants job provides *enough* life satisfaction).

Uhh.. that wasn’t my point. Coming round to it now. The book also takes aim – through the guise of ‘cutting edge blogs’ – at the feminists who aren’t progressive or radical enough, aren’t keeping up with the times. There’s a sort of half-hearted apology for not keeping pace with changes within feminism, and then a return to the resolution of plodding forward on the same path. I’m not hip enough to feminist currents. What I do know is this: I’m a feminist and I did not like this book. But more importantly, I think, I’m a reader and I did not like this book. It’s politics didn’t bother me, what bothered me was the cement-drying-paced plot, the absence of real character development, and the reliance on Hip to the Moment politics for making a splash.

So if you’re assembling your summer reading list, let me urge you to pass on this one. Or not. Your novels, your choice.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction