Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Winter

Title:  Winter
Author:  Ali Smith
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101870753 / 978-1101870754

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "God was dead:  to begin with."

Favorite Quote:  "The internet. A cesspit of naivety and vitriol ... Well, the naivety and the vitriol were always there all along ... The internet's just made them both more visible."

I pick this book, having heard about Ali Smith and her work. She is an acclaimed, award-nominated, and award-winning author. This book is the second in a quartet, each featuring a season as a title. The first was Autumn which I have not read, although I believe the books stand alone. I am, however, intrigued that the quartet begins with autumn rather than spring in keeping with the symbolism of the seasons. Metaphorically, to me, the seasons symbolize the cycle and phases of life. I expect a somewhat philosophical read about family, about aging, about ... well life. I expect to leave the book with a lot to think about.

I suppose that does happen to some extent, unfortunately just not in a good way. I am left thinking about the book, but more puzzled than moved. The book description reads, "Ali Smith’s shapeshifting Winter casts a warm, wise, merry and uncompromising eye over a post-truth era in a story rooted in history and memory and with a taproot deep in the evergreens, art and love." What does that even mean?

That is about my summation of the book. I am not entirely sure what it's about. On its surface, the book is about a small, dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas. However, it begins with a rather disturbing image of the main character who sees a floating head. (For those who may remember, it made me think of the sun in the children's show The Teletubbies! Pretty sure that is not the intention!) Once seen, that image is pretty hard to unsee.

Unfortunately, for me, the book does not improve upon acquaintance. I never quite grasp the characters or the plot; therefore, I never quite care. The writing style is a stream of consciousness going from thought to thought to thought. The very short, choppy sentences add to that feel by creating a staccato beat to the book. The lack of punctuation for dialogue makes this challenge even greater. At times, the writing itself has a hypnotic, poetic feel to it. However, it is prose, and I am left looking for the story in this "post-truth" narrative.

Perhaps, that search is why I am not the reader for this book. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" its international word of the year. The dictionary defines the word as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Further explanation provides that the use of "post" does not imply a timeline of after but rather the idea of irrelevance. More often than not, the word is sadly used in the context of politics. This book puts it in the context of a family dynamic.

So, does a "post-truth" era story pulls more to emotions and beliefs rather than a plot for facts? I am not really sure, but that too can work to create a beautiful reading experience. As a reader, I respond to emotion and conviction in a book. Unfortunately, this book does not elicit that reaction either. So, for me, no real plot and no real emotion come through, and I struggle to the end, still searching for either.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Title:  The Sea Beast Takes a Lover
Author:  Michael Andreasen
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1101986611 / 978-1101986615

Book Source:   I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The night before we load you into the crate and watch as the helicopter carries you off to the undisclosed location to drop you into the Atlantic Ocean, we eat dinner as a family."

Favorite Quote:  "Why is time travel important? The answer seems simple enough to the time travelers:  Time travel is important because it is the most objective way to study the unfolding of past events as they actually happened, to cut out history's middleman, with his incomplete record and his limited and hopelessly biased perspective, and go straight to the source - history in its rawest, purest form."

The sea beast in this book is an actual sea creature. The lover is a ship that the sea beast holds firm in its grasp. Choosing a book with such a title, I expect the unusual. This collection of stories certainly delivers. A society that ships off the elderly as if on an adventure to a new life. A girl without a head cared for by her younger sibling. An alien abduction. A saint who carries her completely severed but completely preserved hand on a plate. A boy who becomes a ticking time bomb. And more.

Aspects of some stories are truly disturbing. Reader beware. Different stories center on disturbing ideas - euthanasia of the elderly, sexual assault, infidelity, pornography, abuse, and others. This is by no stretch of the imagination a comfortable book to read. In fact, it is memorable for its discomfort and its completely surreal feel. Another warning - the stories don't really offer a judgment or closure or ending to some of these issues. The stories flow open-ended, more of a moment in time rather than a plot. The content of the stories in this collection ranges from the bizarre to the more bizarre.

Looking below the surface of the stories though, common themes do emerge. Each story seems to find its anchor in a character's need to be loved. Even the sea beast is looking for love. It destroys others in that path, but the need is for love. In these completely unrealistic, science-fiction like stories, the author manages to capture the very human emotion in both its intensity and occasionally its destructive path. It is this intensity that keeps me reading.

Like all collections, the individual stories can be individually reviewed. My reaction to each story depends on the balance between the bizarre and sometimes disturbing content and the very real and sometimes touching human emotions. In that respect, my favorite is the first one which is about the role of the elderly and this society's approach to dealing with the end of life.

My reaction also depends on the visual image the story conjures, and how disturbing that image is. The cover of the book is of course the sea beast; it is more a flight of imagination than a disturbing reality. The image I wish I could unsee is the girl without a head and the disturbing events of that story; that leaves images of the very real abuse and assault against a disabled person that could be and has been found in the news headlines.

All of this is a testament to the writing. The book contains no images except for the cover image. The writing, however, leaves a very visual impact. The fact that the books paints these pictures within the few pages of a short story is even more impressive for each story is completely different in its imagery. This is Michael Andreasen's first book. For this aspect of his writing, I may try whatever he writes next.

At the end, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this book. However, I will remember it for its weirdness.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Ghost Notebooks

Title:  The Ghost Notebooks
Author:  Ben Dolnick
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101871091 / 978-1101871096

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Let me explain, first of all, that I was never one of those people who believed, even a little bit, in ghosts."

Favorite Quote:  "This is a thing that I'm sure is obvious to everyone else but is never-endingly astonishing to me:  that every change, every life, consists of nothing but a series of days."

I am still trying to make up my mind exactly what this book is about - a ghost story or a book about mental illness or a book about the profound impact of grief. The book is all of the above, but never quite comes to a single focal point. It presents the questions but not the answers.

Nick and Hannah are a young couple, struggling in New York City.  Their relationship is filled with disagreement. Hannah has lost her job, and Nick is a musician whose work is not tied to his location. An online job ad leads Hannah to a new job, and both of them to what they hope will be a new beginning.

The new job leads them to the Wright Historic Home in Hibernia, New York. Nick and Hannah become the live-in caretakers and curators of this museum. The museum preserves the legacy of writer and philosopher Edmund Wright and his family. More importantly, the house is said to be haunted for after the tragic death of the Wright's eldest son, Edmund Wright descended more and more into a study of the occult and the after life. The house has a history beyond what is documented in the preserved artifacts.

The adventure comes as a new beginning for Nick and Hannah; there is definitely a honeymoon period at the beginning. They rediscover each other, and find joy in the exploration of their new home. The biggest clue as to what's coming is the reaction of Hannah's parents to the move. They are distraught and warn Nick to watch over Hannah, who has struggled with mental illness. She is, in fact, on medication, to regulate her well being. Both Nick and Hannah ignore the warnings and move forward.

Hannah's struggles are summarized in the book. "Curiosities slide into idle fears slide into terrors without there being any clear points of demarcation." Nick's struggles too are captured in one statement. "There's an impulse, I've noticed, ... to comb through your memory for moments - the more recent the better - when that person last seemed perfectly normal. I just had dinner with him last week. I just got an email from  her the other day. Part awe, I think, and part protest:  but she was just here."

The story of grief and ghosts in this book competes with the story of mental illness. The two overlap and connect, of course; grief impacts our mental and physical well being. However, this book is a bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum.

I am not sure what to take away from this book. Would Edmund Wright have studied the afterlife and been visited by ghosts if his son's tragic death had not occurred? Did his profound grief influence what came next for the Wright family? Was Hannah susceptible to the stories of the house because she struggled with her own mental health? Was is ghosts or was it Hannah's fragile state of mind that led to the events of the book? How much did grief impact Nick's own state of mind? Did he believe in the ghosts or did he want to believe as a means of coping with grief?

The book does not provide the answers; as such, it is neither completely a ghost story or completely a book about mental health. However, it does presents the questions in a slow-paced, atmospheric manner to allow the reader plenty of the time to contemplate their own answers.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.