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Book Review: Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown

April 17, 2012 2 comments

Skeletons with butterfly wings.Summary:
This collection gathers 34 contemporary Mexican short stories featuring fantasy, scifi, and literary, clearly a wide range.

Review:
For me this collection was very hit and miss, and alas even the hits weren’t that wonderful.  Part of the issue is there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the order in which the tales are presented.  It feels as if 34 completely random stories were selected with the only thing they have in common being Mexican authors.  I generally prefer a short story collection to have a more universal theme or play upon similar tropes, but there is none of that here.  The stories range from young boys hunting iguanas to figuring out how to dispose of a body to a trophy wife on vacation in Las Vegas to a pact with the devil.  It was a bit of an exhausting collection to read.  That said, I’d like to highlight a couple of my favorites that kept the read from being an entirely troublesome experience.

“Hunting Iguanas” by Hernan Lara Zavala both gives a glimpse into country Mexican life, which isn’t something we get to encounter very much, and provides commentary on colonization.

“Lions” by Bernardo Fernandez was particularly delightful for an animal rights activist to read.  In a time of budget cuts the less attractive animals of the zoo are let loose in the city park and gradually take over.  Delightfully tongue-in-cheek.

“The Nahual Offering” by Carmen Rioja features a disturbingly prophetic dream by a tribal woman.  It is a great example of the beautifully grotesque.

You can see, though, that I was only able to pick out three short stories from a collection of 34 to highlight as particularly enjoyable to me.  The collection simply lacks a universality of theme or talent.

Overall this collection is an interesting peek into contemporary Mexican writing, although it does seem the editors could have done a better job in selecting what to include.  Recommended to those with a marked interest in modern Mexican writing.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: LibraryThing EarlyReviewers

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Book Review: The Birth House by Ami McKay

June 28, 2011 2 comments

White bench against a blue wall.Summary:
Dora Rare is rare indeed.  She is the first female born to the Rare family Scots Bay, Canada in generations.  Her dark hair and brownish skin reflecting the family’s Micmac heritage make her stick out like a sore thumb in the area.  However, Scots Bay’s midwife, Miss B., has always taken a shining to Dorrie, and she trains her in the ways of midwifery.  The early 1900s are a tough time for midwives and women, though.  Soon the area is threatened by World War I and male obstetricians, not to mention all the obstacles rural women have always had to face from violent, drunk husbands to too many children.

Review:
This book was quite honestly painful to read, for it lays out so clearly what it is that makes being a woman difficult in society.  Although some things in modern day have improved, for instance we western women have the right to birth control, in other ways things have remained painfully the same.  There are still areas of the world where men have more control over women’s bodies than they do.  It is often still expected for women to be pure when men are not.  Women often feel that they must put up with the wrongdoings of their husband simply to keep the home and family life that they so desperately desire, and on and on.

The book itself is told as a mix of third person narrative and Dora’s journal with clippings from the various newspapers.  This style suits the story well, as we are allowed to see Dora from both outside and inside her own head.  The characters are fairly well-rounded, although the motivations of those who are not Dora are not always the clearest or the most sympathetic, but as most things are from her perspective, that is understandable.

Of particular interest to me, especially with my knowledge of psychology, was the portions of the book dealing with how women are often accused of being insane simply for reacting to the injustices foisted upon them.  I discussed this topic at length in multiple women’s studies and feminism classes.  The idea that the just rage of the trodden upon is often depicted by the rulers as insanity.  This is beautifully depicted in this book for Dora, struggling against many injustices and feeling rightfully irritated and angry, is informed by a male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria–a peculiarly female ailment resulting from female organs.  Her anger and fighting back is thus tagged with a name that let’s others dismiss it as an illness, rather than a just reaction.  McKay eloquently depicts this entire issue without being too heavy-handed.

I was also surprised and delighted to see a portion of the story take place in Boston during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  I’m assuming McKay must have visited my city, for she perfectly describes the North End from the buildings to the atmosphere of walking those streets.  This accuracy allowed me to travel back in time to a period of injustices in my own city, not to mention the molasses flood.  It was indeed a delight to read of Boston from a women’s rights perspective for once instead of always reading of the Irish mafia.

The main point of the book comes across throughout it in a gentle way.  The idea that we must continue to struggle and give but not give up or the oppressors will win.

Never let someone take what’s rightfully yours. You can give all you want in life, but don’t give up. (page 337)

It is simultaneously encouraging, uplifting, and depressing to realize that women throughout time have struggled with similar issues.  Yet things are gradually improving, and thus we must not give up for the sake of future generations of women.

This book beautifully depicts the history of women’s rights in the early 1900s.  It is a painfully beautiful read that I recommend all women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

January 10, 2011 6 comments

Man's face.Summary:
Patrick Bateman is a 1980s yuppie working a Wall Street job with a dark secret.  He doesn’t connect to other people except in the moments he’s torturing and killing them.  But is he really a psychopathic murderer or is it all in his head?

Review:
I have a high tolerance for and even a tendency toward graphic violence and sex in novels, so I feel the need to warn my readers that this book was shockingly graphic even to me, and I was unphased by Battle Royale.  So take that warning as you will.  If you can’t handle graphic violence and sex, this book is definitely not for you.  That said, this book pushes those with a high tolerance for such things in their reading out of their comfort zone, which is always an interesting experience.

The book is told from the first person perspective of Patrick Bateman.  This is essential for us to see and feel what it is to struggle as him.  This, of course, is painfully uncomfortable because we are put in the head of a madman while he violently dismembers and eventually kills multiple people, mainly women.  Some people don’t ever want to be in that person’s head.  Personally, I feel it is essential to understand what drives some people to be psychopaths and Breat Easton Ellis has a frightening ability to get inside that head.  It is chilling to feel that Patrick gets the same sense of release from killing someone as I get from having a glass of wine at the end of the day.  Simultaneously, I don’t doubt this at all, because that is what it is to be a psychopath.

Bret Easton Ellis also does an excellent job of depicting Antisocial Personality Disorder.  Essentially, people suffering from this disorder are incapable of connecting emotionally or empathizing at all with other human beings.  Patrick recognizes this disconnect when he is talking with various people in his life.  He suffers significantly from this inability to find any connection with anything but violence.

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone.  In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others.  I want no one to escape. (Location 8020-8023)

Beyond this, Patrick is completely confused about his world, and he knows it.  He is unsure what is reality and what is not.  This was one of the first aspects of mental illness to be recognized and seeing it all from the perspective of someone who is suffering from it is eloquent.

My mask of sanity was a victim of impending slippage. (Location 5975-5978)

Of course, beyond the uncomfortable identification with and depiction of someone suffering from one of the most difficult to understand mental illnesses is the depiction of the yuppie environment of the 1980s.  What a vain, vapid existence these people lead.  Extensive passages feature Patrick delineating every single designer name everyone in the room is wearing.  One of the main issues in the week for all of the yuppie characters is getting into what is considered to be the best restaurant that week.  Only the “best” alcohol is ordered.  Only the “best” food is served, and it is served in such tiny portions that the yuppies are still hungry, yet this is considered to be better than being satiated.  Frankly, I found these passages annoying to read, but they are necessary to the book.  They show what a shallow, vapid world Patrick is in; one that he feels he cannot escape.  These people are so selfish and lacking in empathy in that there is no way in hell they will ever notice anything is wrong with Patrick.  It’s a scathing commentary on the yuppie culture.

The only negative from a writing aspect I can say about the book is the random chapters in which Patrick educates us on various musical groups.  I honestly have no idea what the point of those are, and I skimmed over them.  I definitely think Bret Easton Ellis should have cut them.

Overall, this is definitely a difficult book to read.  It’s not comfortable or easy to alternate between identifying with a possible killer and being disgusted by his actions.  Feeling sympathy for a killer is not something our society encourages, yet this book makes you feel it.  Additionally, the passages depicting the yuppie world are vapid and annoying if for no other reason than because yuppies are vapid and annoying.  Those difficulties though are what makes the book work.  It takes the reader out of their comfort zone and forces them to confront things that they may not want to confront.  Killers are not simply inhuman.  They may do inhuman acts, but there are still elements of them that we may identify with.  That is the truly scary part of American Psycho.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who thinks they can handle the graphic sex and violence.  It will push your boundaries and force you to sympathize with those society depicts to us as the least sympathetic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: How To Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

December 9, 2010 4 comments

Japanese woman in traditional kimono and lotus flowers.Summary:
Shoko dealt with the consequences of her decision to acquiesce to her father’s wishes and marry an occupying American soldier and return with him to America in the 1940s.  She did her best to hold onto the best parts of being a Japanese woman and meet the expectations of being an American housewife.  But now she is sick from an enlarged heart, possibly the result of radiation from the bombs dropped on Nagasaki, and the consequences of her multiple decisions made in the war and occupation years are coming back to haunt her.  Although her relationship with her biracial daughter, Suiko, is strained, Suiko still does her best to assist her mother, and in the process, learns something about herself.

Review:
I came into this book expecting it to be your typical book about an immigrant adapting herself to the surrounding culture.  That’s really not what this book is about, and that actually is a good thing.  It subtly addresses how complex not only family can be but inter-cultural relations as well.  The world no longer consists of the simple, straight-forward rules that Shoko grew up with.  Since the world is a smaller place, the concepts of what one should or should not do slowly change throughout her life.

Of course, I find everything about Japan completely fascinating, so I enjoyed getting to see it not only through Shoko’s eyes, but through her daughter Suiko’s as well.  Japan truly has changed drastically in the last 70 or so years, and showing the difference in experience simply from Grandmother Shoko to graddaughter Helena is astounding.  Often in America we only think about how our own nation has changed, but this is true for others as well.  Reading about it is a mind-broadening experience.

Dilloway also handles the delicate situation of dealing not only with your parents’ immortality but also their fallibility and essential humanness in a gentle manner.  It is there, but it is not preachy.  It simply reflects the experience of realizing as an adult that your parents are people too, and they’ve had their own life experiences that they regret or have dealt with in their own way.

Still, although I found the story enjoyable to read, it fell short of being deeply moving or memorable.  It felt as if it ended too soon, or we didn’t find out enough about everyone’s stories.  In particular although I understood and felt for Shoko at the beginning of the story, by the end I felt distanced from her, wheras I was still rooting for Suiko.  I think some of the choices Dilloway made for Shoko did not fit with the tone of the rest of the story.

Overall, I recommend this enjoyable read to fans of contemporary or historical realistic fiction with themes of inter-generational and inter-cultural conflicts.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: S by John Updike

November 29, 2010 2 comments

Giant red letter S on a green background.Summary:
Letters, both hand-written and recorded onto tapes, tell the story of Sarah, a North Shore housewife of a wealthy Massachusetts General Hospital doctor who one day in 1986 decides to go and join a commune in the Arizona desert.  Gradually through the letters both her past and her experiences in the commune are revealed.

Review:
I was intrigued by this book for multiple reasons.  I’ve always enjoyed epistolary novels.  I found Updike’s more famous novel, The Three Witches of Eastwick, endlessly entertaining.  Also, I’ve always been fascinated by communes and cults.  This book certainly contains all three elements.  Sarah’s letters compel the reader to get through them as quickly as possible.  Whether she’s discussing the commune or her past life on the North Shore, the letters are truly fascinating.  Perhaps this is partly because there’s a Stepford-wife like quality to Sarah’s past life, and her current life is so over the top from anything most modern Americans experience.  It provides a fascinating contrast.

The book therefore starts out strong, but falters more and more the further toward the end it gets.  The more about Sarah is revealed, the less sympathetic she becomes.  Additionally, due to the nature of the epistolary novel, some of her actions are not entirely revealed, thus leaving the ending a bit confusing.  Frankly, the ending simultaneously surprised and disappointed me.  I was left wondering what on earth Updike’s point had been.  Was it a feminist stance?  Was it misogynistic?  Was it just a portrait of a person?  The great variety between all these possibilities should demonstrate how confusing the ending is.

It’s interesting to note that Sarah is depicted as a descendant of Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.  I’m sure this plays into the interpretation of the book a great deal, although personally, I am not sure how.

Overall, this epistolary novel starts out strong and engaging, but the ending leaves the reader a bit confused and let down.  If you’re a big Updike or epistolary novel fan, you will still enjoy the book enough to make it worth your while to read, but all others should probably give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Swap.com

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Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

November 1, 2010 9 comments

Multiple colored letters spelling out the word Room.Summary:
Most of the time it’s just Jack and Ma in Room.  Jack likes watching shows on the planets on the television, but Ma only lets him watch two a day.  She says his brain will turn to mush if he watches it too much.  So instead they have phys ed where they run track in a smile around the bed or Jack plays trampoline while Ma calls out his moves.  Sometimes Ma reads to Jack or they lay in the sun that comes in through the skylight.  All day things are good in Room.  But every night Old Nick comes, and Jack has to stay in Wardrobe while Old Nick spends time with Ma.  Ma doesn’t like it when Old Nick comes.  Neither does Jack.  Jack’s whole life Ma has told him only they are real, and everything on television and in books is just stories.  But one day she tells him those were lies.  And now she’s unlying.  Because they have to escape soon to Outside. Outside Room.

Review:
This is a mind-blowingly powerful book.  I totally devoured it.  It was impossible to put it down.  Told entirely from the perspective of 5 year old Jack who was born in Room, it puts an incredibly heart-wrenching and revealing look into what has unfortunately been all over the news in recent years.  Cases of women kidnapped and then locked up to be used by their kidnappers as, essentially, sex slaves.  These cases often result in the births of children, and although stories have been told from the woman’s point of view, I am unaware of any others that tell them from the child’s point of view.

I have no idea how Donoghue was able to sound so completely like an actual 5 year old, but not just a 5 year old.  A 5 year old going through such a unique and painful situation.  From the very first page, I entirely believed that I was listening to what was going on inside Jack’s head.  That means sometimes there are a few paragraphs about playing, and how Jeep and Remote Control play and fight with each other.  But it also reveals what incredible insight children can have into life.  That children are in fact little people and should be respected as such.  For example, at one point Jack says:

I have to remember they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together.  It makes my head tired.  And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside.  I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there.  Are we still real? (Location 1257-1261)

Jack is simultaneously childlike and insightful, and that lends a powerfully unique touch to a tale of evil inflicted on others.  I honestly cannot think of anyone I would not recommend this book to, except perhaps someone for whom the events in it might be triggering.  Beyond that, everyone should have the experience of reading it.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

September 6, 2010 6 comments

Book cover with a large blue V and a pig wearing pearls.Summary:
A satire on free enterprise, money, and capitalism in America told by examining the fictional Rosewaters–an uber-wealthy American family whose ancestor acquired his wealth essentially by profiteering during the Civil War.  The current Rosewater fights in WWII and returns with this crazy idea that everyone deserves to be equally happy and people who inherited wealth did nothing to deserve it.  He responds to this conundrum of conscience by returning to his ancestor’s hometown and using the Rosewater Foundation to help the “useless poor.”  In the meantime, a lawyer by the name of Mushari decides to attempt to prove that Mr. Rosewater is insane, and the foundation money should be handed off to his cousin, currently a suicidal, middle-class insurance man.

Review:
How to review Vonnegut?  Upheld (at my university anyway) as the epitome of great American writing.  He is certainly prolific, and some of his books absolutely deserve the high praise (Slaughterhouse-Five springs to mind).  I don’t feel that this novel lives up to his reputation, however.  I was left feeling that I somehow had missed his point.  That he was attempting to make some high and mighty, heavy-handed vision known to me, and it just didn’t come through.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that the first third of the book is focused on Eliot Rosewater, the next on his cousin, and the last on Eliot again.  Just as I was getting into Eliot’s story, it switched to his cousin.  Then when I was getting into his cousin’s story, it switched back to Eliot.  To top it all off, the ending left me with little to no resolution on either one.  Maybe Vonnegut’s point is that capitalism either makes you crazy or depressed with no way out?  I’m not sure.

That’s not to say that this wasn’t a fun read, though.  Vonnegut crafts the mid-western town Eliot lives in and the Rhodes Island seacoast town his cousin lives in with delicious detail.  What is interesting about both are of course the people in the towns surrounding the main characters, and not the main characters themselves.  In particular the Rhodes Island town is full of surprisingly well-rounded secondary characters from the cousin’s wife who’s experimenting in a lesbian relationship, to the local fisherman and his sons, to the local restaurant owner who is intensely fabulous (yes, the gay kind of fabulous. There’s quite a bit of GLBT in this book, for those interested in that).  I was so interested in this town.  This was a town that actually demonstrated the problems innate in some people having too much money while others don’t have enough.  This was so much more interesting than Rosewater’s sojourn in Indiana.  But then!  Just when I was really getting into it and thinking this book might approach Slaughterhouse-Five level….bam! Back to Indiana.

Much more interesting than the heavy-handed money message was the much more subtle one on the impact of war.  Mr. Rosewater’s sanity issues go back to WWII.  I won’t tell you what happened, because the reveal is quite powerful.  Suffice to say, Vonnegut clearly understood the impact WWII had on an entire generation and clearly thought about the impact of war on humanity in general.  In this way, this book is quite like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Another interesting way that it’s similar is that Mr. Rosewater listens to a bird tweeting in the same manner (poo-tee-weet!)  I haven’t read enough Vonnegut to know, but I wonder if these two items show up in many of his works?  The birds, especially, are interesting.

Overall, if you’re a Vonnegut enthusiast, enjoy reading for setting and character studies, and don’t mind a message that’s a bit heavy-handed, you will enjoy this book.  Folks just looking for a feel of what makes Vonnegut held in such high esteem should stick to Slaughterhouse-Five though.

3.5 out of 5

Source: PaperBackSwap

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