Monthly Archives: May 2015

Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

UnbecomingGrace is a liar; that much we know from the start. She has lied to her employer about her name, and as her tale unspools it becomes increasingly clear how deeply ingrained her impulse to deceive really is. She is an intriguing and deeply flawed character, both the narrator and the mystery in this gripping psychological tale of deception and identity.

Grace gradually fills in the details of her relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Riley, and her attachment to his family. Somehow, Riley, an aspiring artist, has ended up in prison, convicted of robbing a local historic house of valuable antiques. His roommates were also involved; one, his best friend Alls, was convicted alongside him while the other avoided jail by turning state’s evidence.

Now Riley and Alls are eligible for parole and will soon be freed. Grace compusively checks for news of their release with an unspoken dread. In the meantime, her own situation is increasingly tenuous.

Author Rebecca Scherm scatters the breadcrumbs of Grace’s past with such skill and precision that it’s physically difficult to put the book down. I stayed up until 1 a.m. to finish it because I just had to know how it had all happened, and what would happen next. It was worth the dark circles this morning to get those answers. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself wondering what would happen if Grace met Theo from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It seems like they would have a lot to talk about.

Genre: Twisty, psychological fiction.

Read it if: You love Hitchcock movies and/or Gone Girl; you enjoy stories involving art and theft; you don’t mind living in the mind of a deeply flawed narrator.

Skip it if: You prefer likeable characters and linear plots; you can’t stand moral ambiguity; or you need your sleep.

Movie-worthy: Yes, although it would take an exceptional director to make it work, and perfect casting for Grace.

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Review: Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Find Me by Laura Van Den BergIn Find Me, a 19-year-old grocery store clerk named Joy Jones survives a terrible plague that ravages the memory before killing its victims. She is invited to join others in a hospital where they can be observed and tested in hopes of uncovering the secret to their immunity.

Joy, whose name can only be intended ironically, was abandoned as a baby and grew up in foster care and group homes, where terrible things happened to her. She has repressed some of her early childhood memories, and speculates that this sealed-off corner of her mind is the source of her immunity to the memory disease. Joy relied on stolen cough syrup to get her through her tedious days before the plague hit; her time in the hospital hardly seems better or worse than her prior existence.

Joy tells the story in first-person present tense, and at least to me it felt like being trapped in someone else’s ongoing nightmare. The hospital is founded on lies. A childhood companion with a penchant for animal masks and clairvoyance suddently reappears. She finds herself traveling on buses that are going in the wrong direction, lost at night, driving through hellish landscapes, abandoned on the roadside.

On a quest to find the mother who abandoned her, Joy encounters rundown locations populated by disturbed and broken people. A junkie lying prone on a bathroom floor. A damaged girl wearing angel wings who eats the dirt from beneath her fingernails.

I love a post-apocalyptic dystopia as much as anyone, but I have to admit this unsettling story left me feeling queasy. When Joy’s surreal journey finally ended, I was more than happy to wake up.

Genre: Surreal post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Read it if: You don’t require clear boundaries between reality and nightmare; you are okay with ambiguous outcomes; you’ve read a lot of Kafka while high on cough syrup.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about child abuse; you are currently in the hospital; or you are looking for a light read and think the pretty blue cover looks cheerful.

Movie-worthy: If Ingmar Bergman were still alive, sure.


Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

HausfrauThe cover of Hausfrau is eye-catching and alluring, a bright bouquet of flowers in shades of lurid red and pink, fading into vaguely sinister shadows.

Anna is the Hausfrau of the title, which means “housewife” in German. She has lived as an expat spouse in Switzerland for nine years, over the course of which she has become completely dependent on her Swiss husband, Bruno. She has no job, no bank account, no hobbies, no true friends. She has three children–two little boys and a newborn daughter–but her mother-in-law, Ursula, is always around to help her care for them.

Access to free unlimited childcare may be the most important aspect of Anna’s living situation, since it’s what enables her to embark on multiple loveless affairs. As Anna herself later notes, if she self-medicated with food instead of sex, she’d be a very large woman. ┬áShe is clearly very depressed, numb to every possibility of action or change, and lets herself be swept into these affairs as a way to feel some kind of pleasure, even if it’s fleeting and followed by self-disgust.

Anna’s main character trait is her overwhelming passivity. She knows this, and so does her psychoanalyst (who, in my opinion, should have her license revoked.) She never decides anything, she just flows along letting things happen to her, ignoring the potential consequences. Of course, eventually she must get her comeuppance and it happens in a particularly horrible way.

This book was interesting for me primarily because I’ve lived as an expat in Switzerland. While I can vouch for the incomprehensibility of Schweizer Deutsch, otherwise my experience was very, very different. I feel sorry for Anna–living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, blind to anything but her own numb despair.

Genre: Super depressing expat fiction.

Read it if: Your two favorite books are Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina; you would prefer to believe life in Switzerland is pretty miserable; you think happy endings are for wusses.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid sex scenes, graphic language, violence toward women, etc; you need a little joy somewhere in your fiction; you are thinking of accompanying your spouse to an overseas assignment in Switzerland.

Movie-worthy: I can see it already–a Helvetic twist on Belle de Jour, only not as upbeat.

Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

So You've Been Publicly ShamedSocial media is a powerful force in today’s world, and when unleashed on an individual the impact can be brutal. Just ask Justine Sacco, the unfortunate PR woman who made an AIDS joke in very poor taste while en route to Africa; by the time she got off the plane, she’d lost her job, her reputation, and any control over her online presence. Twitter had judged her, and sentenced her to a public shaming.

As cautionary tales go, it’s hard to resist (the fact that she was a PR professional does make it awfully ironic.) Jon Ronson looks at cases like Justine Sacco’s and asks some critical questions about how we as a society came to believe it was okay to collectively torpedo someone’s life for doing something stupid or offensive in the public eye.

Ronson explores a wide-ranging array of cases: best-selling author Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace after a falsification and plagiarism scandal; the former head of Formula One racing, Max Mosley, whose unusual tastes in extracurricular activities became the subject of a News of the World article and subsequent court case; and Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose irreverent photo at Arlington National Cemetery caused her to lose her job and prompted death threats.

If nothing else, this book will make you think twice about ever posting another joke to Twitter or questionable photo to Facebook.

Genre: Non-fiction cautionary tale.

Read it if: You are worried about the lack of empathy and compassion in social media, or you wonder what it’s like to witness the filming of a “public disgrace” scenario in an S&M movie.

Skip it if: You enjoy expressing public outrage when offended by someone’s poorly judged comment, and you would prefer to keep doing that without feeling bad about it.

Movie-worthy: It would make a good HBO documentary.

Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just CityIn this strikingly original and thoughtful novel, Jo Walton has brought Plato’s Republic to vivid life. Athene, goddess of wisdom, has decided to create the Republic as an experiment, and has used her powers to summon participants from throughout time to help her carry it out.

Athene, as becomes increasingly clear, is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. She is bound by the laws of Fate and Necessity, so she is only able to bring those people who have prayed to her for the chance to live in Plato’s Republic, however fleeting the prayer. ┬áThese devotees become the Masters of the city, and they buy children from slave markets throughout time to populate it.

The story is told from three perspectives: Simmea, a child purchased from slavery who grows to adulthood in the Just City; Maia, a Victorian-era woman whose scholarly talents were wasted in her own time; and Apollo, who has chosen incarnation in a mortal body in order to experience the Just City and better understand the concepts of choice and equal significance.

These latter themes echo throughout the narrative. Apollo is troubled by what happened with Daphne, a nymph he pursued with his usual ardor; rather than give in to his desires, she prayed to Artemis to turn into a tree, and her prayer was granted. Apollo can’t get his mind around that decision, and it becomes clear that he isn’t the only man in the Just City who has difficulty with the concept of choice.

Meanwhile, not all the children of the City are grateful for their rescue from slavery. Simmea thrives, but her friend Kebes nurses his resentment of the Masters at every opportunity. He finds a new source of fuel for his discontent when Athene brings Sokrates to the City. An unwilling participant in the experiment, Sokrates raises questions that no one had previously considered, including the possibility that the worker robots employed to avoid the necessity of slavery might in fact possess sentience.

Although I have never read Plato’s Republic, this extraordinary story made me want to go back and look at the source material. While I may or may not get around to that, I will definitely be on the lookout for the sequel, The Philosopher Kings. Pre-ordering!

Genre: Philosophical science fiction.

Read it if: You’re a sci-fi loving classics major or a mythology loving science fiction fan; you enjoy reading about efforts to create utopia, especially when those efforts inevitably fail; or you loved Jo Walton’s fantastic earlier book Among Others.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about rape, or the exposure of newborn babies with birth defects.

Movie-worthy: Umm. Maybe a Game of Thrones meets Rome type of mini-series, but even then I’m not sure TV could cope with the amount of nudity in this book. Nude wrestling, people. All the time.

An Unexpected Plot Twist

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I haven’t been posting much lately, because for a while I was hardly reading at all. That’s wildly out of character, but life took an unexpected turn that derailed more than just my reading habits: my son was medically evacuated from Burma.

I accompanied him to Washington, DC, where he is receiving excellent medical care. His long term prognosis is very good, but we will not be returning to Burma.

Now that we have settled in a bit, I am slowly ramping up the reading and hope to get back to posting book reviews again soon.

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