Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

"Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?"
"Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me."
"Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?"
"Down in the boneyard ten feet deep."

What if this was a schoolyard rhyme you learned as a kid, whose origins lay in a mysterious house in your neighborhood where you've heard two strange sisters live, but who you've never seen? You've heard other things, too. That the sisters eat children, and if you think you've insulted them, to leave a gift on the doorstep in a basket. To your surprise, you'll find that the next morning, the basket will be empty.

What actual events could have caused all this mystery? What if one of the sisters could tell you everything?

Mary Katherine, or Merricat, is our narrator. She is the younger of the two sisters. Her story begins after the mysterious poisoning of most of her family, and after her sister Constance's trial. She tells us about the routines that occupy her days, how Constance fills the kitchen with wonderful smells, how her uncle Julian has good days and bad days, and how she and her cat Jonas scamper into the woods by her house, to bury treasure, or nail a trinket to a tree, or dream about living on the moon.

Merricat's voice is immature and dreamy. She lives in a world all her own. She loves her routines, and fights against change. So when cousin Charles visits the small family, Merricat sets to work trying to get him to leave. From an outside perspective, Merricat's actions are confusing, scattered, and nonsensical. Why would she put sticks and dirt in Charles' bed? But from Merricat's perspective it makes perfect sense. One might look at Merricat and wonder if she's a burgeoning witch, with her superstitions and strange love for nature.  But is there another reason why the village hates them so?

This is a short read, but a compelling one. And Shirley Jackson seems to have a cult following for her strange tales, which include her controversial The Lottery, published in 1948, as well as the Haunting of Hill House.

Obligatory movie notice: We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be released as a major motion picture this summer.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

Why do people like this book? Am I missing something?

I get it. Bad writing and an improbable plot that could also operate as a pasta strainer have united like a defective pair of power twins before to create cult successes (I'm looking at you Sharknado). And really, there is a whole genre of bad horror films...but does it work with books, too? I'm not a horror book reader, so I'm sincerely asking.

Why do people think this book is so scary? Creepy kids? Scary. Does this book have creepy kids?


Psychological drama? Can be scary. Like when someone thinks they're going crazy because they are seeing things other aren't. Or when they hear things other people don't. Does this book have psychological drama?


Clowns? Scary. Does this book have clowns?


Ghosts? Okay, now we're talking. This book has ghosts! However, they aren't Japanese or Korean ghosts, and we all know those are the scariest kind. And IDGAF if I'm spoiling anything, because this book is so bad, I'm doing you a favor. If you read it anyway after you read this review, you deserve to have it spoiled for the poor decision making skills you are exhibiting.

So there are ghosts. But (okay, I'll indulge you) *SPOILER ALERT* they're not scary.

And the plot? The plot, you ask? We have a handful of characters who are written as caricatures that we care little about. They work in an IKEA knock-off store that might be haunted and spend a night there figuring it all out. There's a homeless guy/possible ghost living in the store, but that's never resolved or really followed up on. In fact, it was like Hendrix was going in one direction and then forgot what he previously wrote and decided to completely change tack, so he killed the homeless guy and we are left wondering how he fit into the story at all. But maybe he was a character wonders at the end. This is Hendrix's idea of resolution, I guess.

I won't go into any more holes in the plot. Suffice it to say you will find less in a heroin addict's arms after nickel night in the back alley.

I think the only good thing about this book is the actual book, which is made to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with a store map and product drawings and descriptions. But I read the audiobook, so...

The dialogue was boring and humorless, and the only reason I finished the book is because it was short and I wanted credit for my cannonball goal. So here's my review and now I can move on with my life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

After finishing several audiobooks, I had gotten used to "reading" while accomplishing some other task. So it took several weeks for me to actually read this book, which was a Christmas gift. How time-consuming to SIT DOWN and READ an ACTUAL book...Could I truly devote ALL my attention to it? I was afraid I wouldn't get the kitchen cleaned or my email checked or God knows what else if I just READ the book myself. Oh no, is this what kids these days think about books? *high fives myself for bridging a generational gap*

Speaking of kids these days, Ove is the kind of curmudgeonly old man who would say exactly that. He yells at people and calls them names, never mind the people he DOESN'T like. But he saves his deepest ire for anyone who ignores the no driving sign between the row houses in his neighborhood. He is the sort of man who doesn't understand idle chatter, who judges another man by the car he drives, and whose (albeit reluctant) willingness to fix your radiator is a sign of his ability to tolerate you.

Mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that isn't revealed in the movie's trailer...

Ove's wife has died and so Ove doesn't see fit to live himself. But things keep getting in the way of his...attempts. Nosy neighbors, broken furniture, kids to yell at, that kind of thing. And in the story of the end of his story, we learn how he became mortal enemies with his former friend and neighbor, how he met his wife, how he got a cat he didn't want, as well as some back story on some neighbors.

A Man Called Ove is about the ups and downs that make up daily life. For such a simple premise, you'll want to keep reading nonetheless. I hate to call it a "feel-good" book, but that's kinda how it made me feel. And while it might not make you full on ugly cry, you may have to squeeze back a tear or two in moments both happy and sad. And besides all that, it makes you look at grumpy old men in a whole new way. And who doesn't need a little helping hand to bridge that generational gap, amirite?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

One of my top five! And it's only January!

This book is soooooo good, you guys. It's eye opening and tragic and heartwarming and epic and so many other things.

Yaa Gyasi (last name sounds like "Jesse") is a Stanford graduate, born in Ghana and raised in America. On a visit to Ghana, while researching her book, she saw the Cape Coast Castle. This is one of many forts in Africa used by European traders. It is also the genesis of Gyasi's fictional story, which begins in the late 18th century with two half sisters. Effia's fate leads her to the upper parts of the castle, where traders live and keep their African wives. Essie's fate leads her to the dungeons below, where slaves are held before leaving Africa on ships to the Americas.
The Cape Coast Castle
Gyasi alternates her chapters between the two family lines, advancing generation by generation, until she's covered 8 generations, two continents, and over 200 years. She takes us to villages in Ghana, where a woman's "first blood" dictates when and where she will spend the rest of her life; to the plantations of the American south, where families are split up and sold for labor; to Harlem, New York, where racial tensions permeate daily life. Despite the heavy subject matter, there's something easy about Gyasi's writing that makes the reading palatable and exciting.

Homegoing not only examines slavery and racial identity (both in Ghana and America), it also explores family, intuition, religion, and fate. I loved hearing about the Ghanian views of life events in terms of spirituality, how Gyasi describes a churning body of water as having demons in the depths, waiting to call people to them. Do people drown, or are they summoned by those other worldly entities? Are seemingly random thoughts the result of an arbitrary synapse firing, or is there a more deep seated reason that surpasses space and time that causes us to think about something? A shadow of our past, or even our ancestral past, perhaps? Is a dream just a dream? Or is it our forefathers calling to us, warning us, wishing us home? Do we have full control over our own fate? How much of what we are is the result of pure luck?

One other note, I "read" the audiobook and the narrator, Dominic Hoffman, was wonderful. He could sound African, southern, Californian, male, or female. Although I had trouble understanding a lot of the names (and this might be a book you'll want to flip back and forth with the names and places and times), I really felt the audiobook format enhanced the story.

As this is Gyasi's first novel, I look forward to what she writes next. Highly recommend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Circle by Dave Eggers

"Individually, you don't know what you're doing collectively."

This is Mae's ex-boyfriend's synopsis of the new company she works for. But what does he know? She is working for the most lucrative tech company on the market and he just makes chandeliers. The Circle has made its success in streamlining internet applications by rolling them into one interface based on a user's actual identity. "True You," as it's called, has ushered in a new age of internet transparency.

The Circle employs young, innovative people and encourages employees to linger after hours and on weekends for the many parties and social groups it sponsors. A feeling of community is fostered through the use of social media, which is heavily encouraged and tracked by ranking employees according to their level of online activity. In order for people to fully immerse themselves in this culture, and in line with the "True You" philosophy, employees accept that everything about a person is public information, because, after all,

"Privacy is theft." Have you ever thought that by not sharing an experience, you are depriving another person of that experience as well?


"Secrets inspire speculation." Isn't it better to know the truth than speculate something worse about someone?

And if you feel you can't share with others because you are going through a painful experience, remember this, "Pain experienced in public in view of loving millions was no longer pain, it was communion."

Uh, yeah. I'm totally not creeped out by this company at all. I would absolutely want to work there, just like Mae. And there would be no alarm bells screaming in my head or anything tingling my spidey senses about the amount of control such a company was exerting over me. Of course, if Mae had these reservations and quit, we wouldn't have much of a book. We also wouldn't have the many comical moments where Mae is given a talking to for not participating in events she didn't even know were occurring, or for hurting someone's feelings by not responding to their online comments to her. And of course, we wouldn't get to meet her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is one of the few rational people we meet:

"Listen 20 years ago it wasn't so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren't doing so well socially. And judgments like "like", and "dislike", and "smiles", and "frowns" were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, "Do you like unicorns and stickers?" and you'd say, "Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!"  That kind of thing, but now it's not just junior high kids who do it. It's everyone. And it seems to me sometimes I've entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself!"

But Mae continues to drink the kool-aid. It wasn't until Mae is confronted by her superiors at work for breaking the law that things go from "okay, maybe she's a bit oblivious and naive" to "I'm hitting the I want to believe button." In order to show her commitment to the company's ideals, Mae agrees to be a test-user for a new product, See Change, a small, easily worn camera. The idea, initially marketed to politicians to show their constituents they have nothing to hide, begins a movement in which people "go transparent," a movement started in part by Mae's agreement to beta test the system. Her every move and word recorded for the world to follow, Mae's life drastically changes as she raises in rank with The Circle, but struggles to maintain relationships with those closest to her.

Let's get real, here. The themes in this book aren't new, and the parallels and metaphors obvious. I felt there wasn't a realistic amount of dissent to the blatant privacy and civil violations occurring. And I found it unlikely that so few seemed to see the ramifications of where things were headed.

For these reasons, I read the book as a satire of the proliferation of things like reality TV and government and commercial encroachment on privacy rights. It's too over the top to be taken more seriously than that. And while I think Eggers' reality, as envisioned by The Circle, is literally unrealistic, the book gets you thinking about things:  Why do we keep secrets? Is there ever a legitimate reason to deceive? Will putting everything in the open remove the stigma of things done behind closed doors? Will full transparency and accountability reduce crime and corruption? Will it make us happier?

While I can't say Eggers changed my answers to any of these questions, at least he got me thinking about why the answers were what they were. And I enjoyed his characters, like Mercer, who were comically eloquent. It was definitely a fun read, and one I looked forward to whenever I put the book down. So a solid, "like" from me 😀

NOTE: If this book sounds intriguing, read it before the movie comes out later this year (starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson). There is also a great episode of Black Mirror that handles similar themes (really, just check out all of the Black Mirror episodes on Netflix, while you're at it).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Redeployment by Phil Klay

I accidentally read this book. Is that possible? I realized a few hours in that it wasn't autobiographical, but rather a collection of fictional short stories and had a decision to I stay or do I go? It's not that it isn't well written and interesting, I just don't have much interest in reading fictional war accounts. It's not my favorite genre, but non-fiction IS. So if it's a non-fictional war story, I'm hooked! Get the difference?


Redeployment is broken up into 12 stories, told from various perspectives of Marines deployed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi freedom. As you can imagine, some stories are funny, some sad, some both. Klay himself was a marine deployed in Iraq and spent years researching his characters before publishing. So he knows what he's writing about. A lot of the positive press on this book has been about the accurate portrayal of life for Marines in Iraq.

So was I hooked? I hate to say I wasn't, because I know this book is good. And it's probably more a mental thing for me, knowing the stories weren't actually true. But I have a feeling they are representative, and if you want an idea of what Marines experienced during this time, this just might be the book to read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What is Columbine to you?  Before April 20th, 1999, Columbine was simply a school to most people, if not the flower for which it was named. After the devastating shooting that took 13 lives and terrorized hundreds more, Columbine was a symbol of mass murder and disaster. Maybe you have heard of Columbine, maybe you haven't. But whatever Columbine was to you before reading this book, will surely change.

Columbine is a media driven narrative. As the events of the Columbine shooting unfolded, that narrative wasn't completely wrong, but it was incomplete at best. Stories portrayed the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia (true). They were painted as bullied outcasts (true), out to get the jocks and preps who victimized them (not true). Cullen explores where these stories originated and their veracity. He gives an overarching perspective of Harris and Klebold that provides much needed context for the events that occurred on April 20th and helps correct the media narrative.

Columbine is a case study in sociopathy. Cullen meticulously deconstructs not only the events of April 20th, but the days, months, and even years leading to "judgement day," as the pair called it. In addition to using media coverage and police reports, because the boys wrote extensively in journals and left behind a trove of tape recorded material, Cullen is able to examine the boys' own words and actions. Drawing heavily from research by FBI Agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier, Cullen shows that despite their penchant for violence, the boys were different psychologically. And it is this psychological perspective that is one of the most interesting things about this book. The discussion of sociopathy was intriguing and disturbing. To say Eric Harris is a psychopath because he meets a series of criteria is one thing, but to show how he bragged about manipulating others as a cover-up for his depravity was eye-opening.

Columbine is not what it seemed to be. What didn't come out in the media (at least not during the initial media storm) was the full extent of what the boys planned. They didn't see themselves as "just" school shooters. In fact, they made fun of school shooters. Their intentions were much more grandiose and included a plan that was formulated more than a year in advance. The bulk of the bloodshed would actually be achieved through the use of bombs, in an event that they hoped would surpass Timothy McVeigh's body count from the Oklahoma City bombing. They placed bombs on school grounds, but they didn't detonate as planned.

Columbine is healing. Cullen doesn't just focus on the shooters. He also talks about the victims and how they deal with the aftermath, both physically and mentally. While he only focuses on a few victims, he gives a range of reactions and perspectives, ultimately ending with the school itself. Particularly how each year's students have reacted and evolved to the events of 1999.

So whatever Columbine means to you, this thorough, well-researched narrative gives understanding to the misunderstood. It sheds light on the darkness created by an event that changed a suburban school from just another school to a symbol of terror. You'll learn Columbine is many things at once; a school, a flower, a book, a nightmare, a memory, and so much more than what you thought it was.

NOTE: One perspective that is missing from the book is that of the Harris and Klebold parents. They didn't give interviews and pretty much stayed out of the media for years. Here is an interview I found from Dylan Klebold's mother, Sue.