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Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Ann Marie Lee)

January 11, 2016 6 comments

cover_sharpobjectsSummary:
Camille Preaker, journalist to a small Chicago newspaper, recently out of a mental institution after an in-patient stay to address her long-standing inclination to cut words into her body, has been asked by her boss to go to her hometown.  Two little girls have been found murdered–with their teeth pulled out.  Camille is not inclined to go home. She’s barely spoken to her distant, southern belle mother since moving out years ago and hardly knows her half-sister, 13-year-old Amma.  But home she goes, staying with her mother, step-father, and half-sister to save money, drinking to cope as her demons haunt her, and investigating the murders that have shaken the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.

Review:
This book hit my radar around the time there were all those articles judging Gillian Flynn for writing female characters who are bad/evil. I immediately was supportive of Gillian Flynn (bad women exist, hello) and interested in more of her writing. I started with Gone Girl so I could read it before seeing the movie, but Sharp Objects has been in my sightlines for a long time.  The mere idea of an adult self-injurer going to her hometown and facing her demons was something I would want to read even without knowing how much I enjoy Gillian Flynn’s work.  What I found was a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery with multiple complex characters and simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking lead.

I thought through most of the book that I knew the solution to the mystery. Whodunit. That didn’t bother me. I liked everything leading up to what I thought was going to be the ultimate reveal. The plot twists, though, surprising myself and characters in the book.  While part of me likes the twist, part of me felt it was more cliche than the original ending that I thought I was getting. Ultimately, while I didn’t necessarily find the resolution satisfying, I did find it surprising and something to chew on. It will stick with me in a I’m thinking about it way like eating something unusual you’re not sure if you liked, rather than in an I remember feeling so pleasantly satisfied way, like how you might look back on Thanksgiving dinner.

The pacing in the book is superb. I read it in audiobook format, and I found myself using time to listen to it as rewards for accomplishing other things. I listened to it every chance I had because the pacing was so spot on. It never felt too quick-moving or too slow.  Every scene felt like it had a reason for being there and kept me on the edge of my seat.

There is a lot of mental illness represented in this book, and that is wrapped up in the characters.  I’ll talk first about the spoiler-free mental illnesses.

Camille is a self-injurer who has had a stay in a mental hospital where her roommate managed to commit suicide.  Camille never names more of a diagnosis the doctors gave her than self-injurer.  However, much of her behavior, including her self-injury, points to PTSD from her childhood.  This includes the foreboding feeling she gets when returning to her hometown. How she feels driven to drink herself numb for dealing with certain triggering situations. Her impulse to inflict hurt on herself, etc… All of that said, the representation of Camille as a cutter is superb. This is an adult woman who still struggles with the impulse to cut. Who talks about how most people think of it as an adolescent problem. Camille manages to describe her urges to cut, what drives her to cut, without ever actually definitively saying what causes it. And this is great because we don’t actually know. Camille is nuanced. She is a woman who used to (still wants to) cut herself but that is not, not by a long-shot, all she is.

The book also secondarily depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as a self-medication technique.  Camille drinks as a lesser evil compared to cutting when she needs to relieve her stress and discomfort from dealing with terrible situations.  It shows how alcohol and cutting both can end up being used as coping mechanisms when no healthier ones are learned or taught. It also shows how stressors can impact sobriety and health.

Despite being both a self-injurer in recovery and a woman who abuses alcohol, Camille is depicted as a heroine.  Her investigative journalism helps break the case open. She exhibits care and concern for her half-sister and loyalty to her boss and career.  She is ultimately depicted as resilient in spite of her struggles, and I loved seeing that.

If you are interested in reading about other depictions of mental illness in the book, they are in the spoiler section below.

*spoilers*
It is ultimately revealed that Adora, Camille’s mother, suffers from Munchausen by Proxy (MBP). This MBP is what ultimately killed Camille’s other little sister, Marion. Camille escaped this same fate because her mother didn’t love her and thus also didn’t really enjoy caring for her or garnering attention through her in this way.  What Adora does is unforgivable and certainly causes a visceral reaction in the reader.  However, there are scenes that discuss things such as how Adora’s mother didn’t love her.  The implication is that some of the mental illness in the family is learned or a reaction to poor environment.  It manages to keep Adora human rather than monstrous.

Similarly, it is ultimately learned that Amma is a sociopath. Camille seems to be uncertain if this is just Amma’s nature or a reaction to Adora’s “mothering” or some combination of the two. I feel that not enough time is given to analyzing Amma, once Camille learns her true nature. This depiction, compared to the others in the book, is just much flatter due to the lesser amount of time Camille and other characters spend pondering Amma.

The book ends with Camille wondering if she is able to love in a healthy way or if she’s doomed to repeat her mother’s unhealthy, hurtful mothering. Essentially, she wonders if MBP is inherited or if she can escape that.  Some time is spent discussing what made Camille more resilient than either of her sisters. I think this is some of the more valuable portion of the book, as it really highlights the nuances of some of the things we still just don’t have a solid answer to about mental illness. What makes some people more resilient, more able to overcome bad childhoods and genetic tendencies than others? What makes some people better able to cope with a mental illness than others? They are important questions, and I like that they are addressed.
*end spoilers*

There are some scenes that will bother some readers. While rape is never depicted, it is discussed, as well as the idea of what counts as rape, with one female character arguing that a woman who is intoxicated is still responsible for any sexual activity that occurs.  The character saying this was a victim of rape while intoxicated herself, so readers should bare in mind that this reframing of a rape as not a rape is very normal for rape victims who have not fully addressed the rape yet.  Additionally, at one point one character has consensual sex with a character who has just barely turned 18. Also an adult partakes of illegal drugs and alcohol with characters who are extremely underage. All of these scenes work within the book and are necessary for the plot, however.

Overall, this is a fast-paced mystery with a strong yet flawed female lead and an engaging and thought-provoking plot that presents many different nuances of mental illness. Recommended to those looking for a fast-moving book with a unique depiction of self-injury who do not mind the violence or gray moral areas innate in a mystery revolving around serial killing.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)

September 3, 2011 23 comments

What’s a Reading Project?

I am really excited to be doing my first social justice themed reading project, which is different from a reading challenge.  A reading challenge challenges you to broaden your reading horizons.  A reading project takes a topic that matters to you (or that should matter to you) and creates a reading list about that topic by people who know to help you learn about it, as well as drive discussion on such an important topic.   Now, allow me to explain the genesis of and reasons behind my first reading project.

What Led to the Project

I’ve grown to become good friends with Amy of Amy Reads over the past year, and when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help blew up in literary circles then became a movie, well, both of our ires got up.  We discussed back and forth the issues via gchat, tumblr, and twitter, sending articles and mini-rants to each other and just generally being peeved that so much of the population got swept up into something so offensive to both black and white women in 2011 for goodness sake.

Let me explain to you in my own words my problem with The Help.  Stockett is a white woman who grew up in the south with black maids.  She claims that when her maid died she felt regret at never having gotten to know her as a real person, so she decided to write this fiction book about black maids in her home state in the 1960s.  Right away, I was offended that her instinct was to write a fictional account instead of, oh I dunno, maybe making an effort to fight racism by befriending black people?

For those who don’t know, The Help is about a college educated white woman who comes home and interviews the black maids in her town and publishes their stories.  I cannot really wrap my mind around the thought that Stockett thought of doing a project like this, but instead of being an editor of a collection of memoirs and real-life scenarios by black domestic workers she chose to fictionalize the whole process.

This leads me to one of my largest points.  The Help is Stockett living in a fantasy land version of history.  One of the first things you learn as a history major is to NOT romanticize the past.  You have to get up close and personal with how ugly it truly was.  Shows like Leave It To Beaver completely leave out real issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc…  This is what Stockett is repeating.  She regrets her relationship with her own black maid, so she writes a truly mary-sue style book wherein a college educated white woman gets to know the black female domestic workers and comes to their aid.  This isn’t reality.  This isn’t a harmless feel-good book/movie.  It’s Stockett’s fantasy method of dealing with the racism she grew up with.  Why not instead have written a book about a white woman who goes to college in the north and comes to regret the racism she was raised with?  Who confronts the fact that she spent more time being cared for by a black woman than her own mother?  That would have been real.  That would have been something respectful to talk about.  Instead, though, she chose to write a fantasy version of the 1960s American South where the racism really isn’t so bad and a white female activist isn’t put into any danger by her activism.

The whole thing is offensive.  It’s offensive to black and white women.  It’s offensive to black domestic workers of the past and present.  It’s offensive to white women who faced real danger and estrangement from their families protesting racism.  It’s offensive to the black people who stood up for themselves and fought racism without any white people coming along and telling them they should.  And yet people are happily taking the blue pill and revising history.

Thankfully, not everyone is doing that.  Slowly Amy and I started to see similar reactions to our own throughout the web.  Here are just a few examples:

Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of “ambiguity and complexity” with which our “cowardly nation” is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us.  (Shakesville)

The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and where “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in.  (Roxanne Gay)

And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers.
  (Kimberley Engonmwan)

It’s frustrating because in these narratives—written by privileged Whites—Black people are always passive. Things are done to them or for them, but they are never the agents of their own liberation. (And sorry, but no, telling the Nice White Lady about your shitty boss isn’t being an agent of your own liberation—not when Black women were actually organizing against Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and violence, and the intimidation of Black voters.)  (Feministe)

What really pushed it over the edge for me, though, and got me going from stewing to activisting (that is a word because I say so) was when someone tweeted a link to the American Black Women Historian’s response to The Help that is not only eloquently put, but also includes a suggested reading list at the end.  The reading list got my wheels turning and next thing I knew I was emailing Amy to suggest we do something with that list.

What the Project Is

There are 10 books on the suggested reading list, 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction.  For the next five months we will be hosting a project to read one fiction and one nonfiction book and discuss the content and issues raised.  One blogger will host each book.  For the first month, Amy will be hosting the nonfiction book, and I will be hosting the fiction book.  Other bloggers with an interest in the project are welcome to host! Just email me and (opinionsofawolf [at] gmail [dot] com) and Amy (amy.mckie [at] gmail [dot] com) to let us know your interest and what book you might like to host the discussion for.

The fiction book will be discussed on the second Saturday of the month, and the nonfiction book will be discussed on the fourth Saturday of the month.  The first Saturday of the month will wrap-up the previous month’s discussions and announce the next two books.

So next Saturday I will be discussing A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight.  Please come join in the discussion!  You don’t have to read the book to engage in the discussion, but I highly encourage you to do so.

On the 24th, Amy will be discussing Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones.

We encourage you to join in with us on the project to stop letting people revise history.  Get to know the facts behind the history of black domestic workers in the United States and read fictionalized accounts of the experiences written black writers, all recommended by educated historians.

Books of the Project

Fiction:
Like One of The Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life
, Alice Childress
The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam
 by Barbara Neeley
The Street
by Ann Petry 
A Million Nightingales
 by Susan Straight

Non-Fiction:
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household 
by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War
by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present
by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi
by Anne Moody