Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “amurph11”

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #36, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” -David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

I began a book over a month ago that has been kicking my ass every day since I opened it. You can find the review for that book here, but in the meantime suffice it to say it is about war, and it broke my heart on every page, with every paragraph. It was in the middle of reading this book that I began Cloud Atlas. 

I had no reason for doing so, other than the fact that I wanted to see the movie, and I needed a break from reading about the relentless horrors of war. But what I found in it surprised me: in reading Cloud Atlas, I found a reason to keep reading.

You wouldn’t think I would need a reason. In case I haven’t made it clear, I love books. I don’t love them like I love movies – I love them like I love people. They have the ability to reinforce me or to completely wreck me in the exact same way as people do (sometimes, if I’m honest, even more – I don’t put up the same defenses against books that I do with people). Nonetheless, despite loving books like I do members of my family, there are times in life when I cannot read them. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, when life seems too daunting, when there is too much pain right in front of me to risk encountering even more fictional pain, I stop reading.

When this happens next time, I am going to force myself to pick up Cloud Atlas. Because above all other things – above the lyrical prose, the brilliant structure, the clever pacing and the sheer epicness of the plot – Cloud Atlas is primarily a defense in reading. And not only reading, but connecting.

Society’s compulsion for fiction can be boiled down to one simple factor: the need to connect. Fiction offers a chance to connect – to people, periods and places – that you don’t need social skills, plane tickets, or a time machine to access. If you are reading this, a blog about writing about reading, chances are it’s because somewhere along the way you read something and felt immediate recognition: I get that. I’ve felt that. And now I know someone else does too.

The way in which Cloud Atlas speaks to this human impulse to connect is nothing short of brilliant, truly. He meticulously lays out each character’s story and then transitions abruptly halfway through to another story. What ties them all together is that each of these stories has some connection to the other. A composer from the 1940s reads the journals of an American notary from a century before. A journalist later stumbles across this same composer’s letters. That journalist’s story is turned into a manuscript, read by a publisher, whose story in turn is made into a movie. That movie is viewed by a slave far in the future, who is later deified by a people even farther into the future, after the world has burned itself down and restarted from scratch. All these connection points throughout history combine to make one point: you are not alone. Yes, you – the one reading this. You are not alone. You are part of something.

As it turns out, this is a message I needed to hear. It’s a curious thing, but it is usually when I want to be alone most that I most need the kind of connection that books offer. Because while a book can be many things – a temporary escape (“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.” ), a journey (“…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some.”), an attempt to give voice to the ineffable (“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”) or to get at an unreachable truth (“As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”), a chance to daydream (“. . .my dreams are the single unpredictable factor in my zoned days and nights. Nobody allots them, or censors them. Dreams are all I have ever truly owned.”) – above anything else, a book is just a steadily beating reminder that we aren’t alone here. That life isn’t a monologue, but a grand, chaotic ensemble show. That even the worst can be borne, if it comes with the knowledge that someone, somewhere – no matter how far removed they are from us – has borne it as well.

After reading this novel, I kind of wished I had left it to the end of Cannonball Read. It would have been such a fitting end to a year of reading, and writing about reading, to review a book that is essentially one long argument for the kind of pure, human connection that books offer. But as it turns out, now was when I needed it. Now, when my former home is tearing itself apart in the most senseless of conflicts. Now, when my current home is continues to ignore the massive, irreparable effects its decade-long war is having on a generation of men and women in favor of parsing the sexual conduct of one of its generals. Now, when war and rape seem to have joined the list of certainties formerly only occupied by death and taxes. Now, when I am just really fucking tired.

At the end of the day, a book is just a collection of words. But each of those words contain multitudes – enough to harm or to heal, to destroy or to rebuild. It can be a place to have your heart broken, or a place to recover. And sometimes, it can even be both.

Recommended For: Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who wouldn’t like this book, is what I’m saying.

Read When: Anytime, but the more burnt out you are, the better

Listen With: Conveniently, it’s got its own score.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #35, War by Sebastian Junger

“War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them.” -Sebastian Junger

I don’t know how to write about this book.

It took me long enough to even a read it – over a month. That’s unusual for me; I am a freakishly fast reader. But while reading this one, I had to stop every few pages just to stare into space. When I read, I tend to dog-ear pages that have a phrase or a paragraph that stuck out to me, that affected me in some way. This is what War looked like after I was finished it:

Sebastian Junger’s War was written in tandem with a documentary he along with Tim Hetherington filmed called Restrepo. It’s about a platoon of men in the Korengal Valley, one of the  most dangerous postings in the US military. It is named for the remote outpost at which the platoon spent most of the time; the outpost itself is named for Doc Restrepo, the platoon medic who was killed early in the deployment. According to the website for the film, the goal of it was nothing more or less than to make viewers feel as if they had just been through a 90 minute deployment. At this, both the film and the book succeed.

After finishing the book, I watched the documentary. None of it was a surprise to me; I had memorized every lethal gunshot and IED blast and death, read them over and over again. As a result, I saw most of the violence coming before it played out onscreen – a particularly odd phenomenon when you consider that these are things that happened. Those IED’s were real, those gunshots killed some and didn’t kill others, but won them medals. Waiting for them was strange, but probably no stranger than it felt to be there waiting for them, not knowing for sure if they were coming.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about war – at least modern war, the kind that’s waged with planted bombs and camouflaged snipers – it’s that the waiting is the worst part. It’s not the firefight, it’s the waiting for the first shot. It’s not the explosion, it’s the waiting for your tire to roll over the wrong patch of ground. Even worst is when that first shot doesn’t come, when the patch of ground doesn’t blow up, and the moment of waiting stretches out for an eternity. Wait long enough, and you’ll spend your entire lifetime waiting for that shot, that explosion – long after you’ve been deployed, after you’ve come back, after you’ve had kids and watched them grow up and fight their own battles.

I don’t know how to write about that. I don’t  know how to convey that distinctly awful fact of war, the high stakes boredom, the monotonous dread. I don’t know how to write about the adrenaline of combat, and what happens when it’s over. I don’t know how to write about aftermaths.

Luckily for all of us, Sebastian Junger does. It takes a lot of balls to embed in the Korengal Valley; it takes even more to write about what happens there honestly, with no agenda. Junger’s gift for observation is well-documented, but it’s perhaps used to its best conclusion here, when its applied to watching men at war. The emotional terrain he covers is unfamiliar to most of us, not only because we haven’t lived it but because we’re not interested in knowing about it. When one’s country is at war with an all-volunteer military force, it’s much easier to ignore it, or refer to those who are in it as one homogeneous group – “the troops” – then to actually consider the massive emotional debt we’ve asked these men and women to rack up – a debt that, if we are honest with ourselves, we have little to no intention of helping them pay off. Even when writing about war, many of us ignore this. We write about the cost of war. We write about strategy, and whether it’s working. We write about the process of those in command. We write about PTSD and suicide statistics, at best. But we don’t often write about the direct experience of those on the ground.

This is not an option for Junger: he mostly foregoes strategy and statistics, in favor of direct observance of the emotion of war. He covers them all: the addictive appeal of combat, the intense bonds made within a platoon, the insane boredom of a quiet few months on the heels of so many loud ones, the wracking, relentless survivor’s guilt when you lose one of your own.

I don’t know how to write about this any better than the men who lived it knew how to talk about it.

At the end of Restrepo, there’s a scene in which the camera cuts from one man’s face to the next. It’s devoid of any music; just men staring, after being asked to talk about an experience that they will never be able to forget or replicate.

“That’s the problem when they come home…not necessarily that they come back traumatized – which some do – but that they miss it.”

Recommended For: Everyone.

When to Read: Now. 

Listen With: Nothing.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #33, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” -Stephen Chbosky

Spoilers abound.

It took me about four pages into the Perks of Being a Wallflower to realize something was up with the main character, Charlie. It wasn’t so much the writing style, which in itself is distinctive – the book is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient – but his peculiar, detached voice that alerted me to the fact that all was not well beneath the surface of Charlie’s day to day life. Aside from the obvious, I mean; Charlie is a socially awkward young high-schooler with a dysfunctional family, dealing with both the suicide of one of his only friends and the death of his beloved aunt from a car crash years ago. Unrequited love also features heavily. So far, then, it’s your standard coming-of-age story. But there’s a darker thread running underneath that runs past a couple of red herrings to an ultimately devastating conclusion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s deal with the book itself: it is engagingly written, featuring characters that are somehow both larger-than-life and curiously relatable. It portrays teenage drama and ennui with a surprising amount of realism and empathy. To top it all off, it is set to a kicking 90’s alternative playlist. In other words, it’s sensitive teenage crack. Even so, I felt a distinct unease while reading it, waiting for the revelation with an increasing amount of queasy dread.

It took me until about four pages into the book to recognize something was up with the main character of Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, and about ten minutes to guess what that something was. Charlie, you see, is a survivor – or victim, or both – of sexual abuse.

Call it a benefit of my rape crisis training – I saw it coming from a mile away. Even so, when the denoument finally came, it wrecked me. Maybe it was the recognizable detachment, so common in survivors of such a profound violation at such a young age. Maybe it was the way in which he was outed: like so many survivors, the truth comes out not as a choice, but as an undeniable physical reaction. Maybe it was the resignation with which Charlie finally accepts what happened to him. Maybe it’s because I know that that acceptance will ebb and flow with the day, and the mood. Some days he will accept it. Some days he will ignore it. Some days it will make him so angry that he’ll want to tear his body apart, piece by piece, looking for the place that hurts.

1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused in some way by the age of eighteen, and 1 in 6 boys. I learned these stats in my training class to become a certified rape crisis counselor. But I didn’t really learn them until I sat through a three-hour training on childhood sexual abuse, listening to symptoms and stories, and watching the faces of the people around me. It was day four of a long and grueling training, and it’s safe to say our guard was down. Looking around that room, at all the faces – some stoic, some sad, some squirmy, like they’d rather be anywhere else but in this room at this moment – you could almost count it. 1, 2, 3, survivor, 5, 6, 7, survivor. As it turns out, it’s a really fucking depressing game to play. Halfway through the training, I was sadder than I’d ever been. But after it was over, when I sat talking afterwards with twenty-some people who had been total strangers a few days before, I felt a tentative, wispy kind of hope. Some of the people there had long since come out and made peace with what had happened to them. Some of them clearly hadn’t told anyone, perhaps even themselves. Most were somewhere in the middle of this long, arduous process. But that was the beauty of it: it didn’t matter where any one of them happened to be in their own story – they could still look around and see someone else that had been there before. It was, to coin a phrase, a safe space.

This, to me, is the beauty of  The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a book that normalizes intense emotional experiences at a time when most of us felt our emotions most intensely – from being gay, to suffering through unrequited love, to watching your sister accept physical abuse, even to facing up to your own sexual abuse – there’s nary an emotional ground that isn’t covered in an honest, empathetic way. In this way, Perks will probably always be one of those books that’s a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it’s a coming-of-age story. To some it’s a story of the kind of intense friendships you form as a teenager. To me, it will always be the story of a survivor of sexual abuse making his way – slowly, painfully –  out of the closet. But it’s also about something else: it’s about finding a safe place to come out of that closet. It’s about finding people that will look at you as a whole person, even when you feel at your most broken. It’s about getting help. It’s about being okay.

The other day, I was sitting with two of my friends, both of whom had the extreme misfortune to be victims of childhood sexual abuse. They were talking about relationships, joking around about their various intimacy issues, when one of them stopped suddenly and said, totally deadpan, “But you can’t tell we’re sex abuse survivors. Not at all.” 

And then, something kind of great happened: we laughed. And then we went on to talk about other things. I thought about it for a long time afterwards; about how choices that you didn’t make can affect you in such profound, irreversible ways. And I wondered how that could be, how that was in any way fair. I still don’t have an answer for that. But then I thought of something else – how two people who have gone through trauma can sit in a room with each other and laugh about it.  In that way, Stephen Chbosky’s conclusion seems better than any other: even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.

Read When: You need to cry, and to feel better, in that order.

Recommended For: survivors of child sexual abuse and those who know them; more generally, for anyone who feels, or has felt, alone as an adolescent.

Listen With: If you’re paying attention, Stephen Chbosky provides a nice little playlist within the book itself (see here, for those of you who like to take shortcuts in life). Short version? Lots of 90’s alternative, with some Beatles cut in to smooth it out.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #32, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” -Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

I read The Night Circus as part of a community reading project, sponsored by my local library. It’s an enchanting story about two orphaned magicians who are trained since infancy to compete with each other, in a magical competition shrouded in mystery centering around an enchanted circus. The two lovers, upon finding out that they are competitors, promptly fall in love. I enjoyed the hell out of it upon my first reading, but when it came time to sit down and right this review, I was totally stumped. I knew I had enjoyed it, but I couldn’t quite remember why. Much like the illusive circus that the story centers around, the pleasure of reading it had been with me in the moment, but when asked just what exactly was so great about it, I couldn’t come up with a good answer.

The answer came to me after watching a talk by the author herself, Erin Morgenstern. Morgenstern is ridiculously charming, full of self-deprecating tales of her own writing foibles. Her story of writing The Night Circus was particularly endearing; it started as an image from an entirely different story, and the image itself became so entrancing that she based a book around it. Her first draft had, as she explained, “absolutely no plot.” It was 100% florid description of the circus’ many enchantments, with zero character stories behind it. The protagonist, Celia, did not exist in her first draft of the novel. Luckily, several agents took it upon themselves to explain this to her, and agreed to take a look at the work as it progressed. Eventually, one of them signed her, and after a round or two of edits, and it sold in a week.

After the event, I purchased the book and started re-reading it for this review. And here’s the thing – it could have used a few more rounds of edits. The descriptions of the circus are indeed enchanting, as indeed are many of the characters themselves. But despite a perfect framing device: a magical circus, star-crossed lovers, and a diabolical secret – there’s not much holding it together. The magic is inconsistent, and is never sufficiently explained to readers (a death knell in fantasy, as far as I’m concerned). Celia and Marco are charming, but neither of them have enough emotional backstory to make us fully invest in their love story. The antagonists were two of the most interesting characters, but not nearly enough time is spent clarifying their characters and motivations. There’s a side character named Bailey who I think was supposed to be important, but I’m not sure why. And despite the grand nature of the central conceit of the book – two magicians, completely unaware of each other’s role in their life-and-death competition – the stakes never seemed anything but low. Indeed, these low stakes are born out in the book’s ending, which shys away from tragedy at the last minute.

So why did I enjoy reading it? Two reasons: first, the description. Morgenstern knows how to write fantasy, giving just enough description to pique the imagination, but not so much too stifle it. Her descriptions are velvet and lovely, and leave just enough of a gap for the reader to fill in with images from their own consciousness.

And the second? Well, upon further thought, it turns out that the main reason I liked The Night Circus is because I expected to. It was a book with a beguiling magical premise and a popular audience I identified with (namely, frequenters of independent bookstores who also very much enjoy Harry Potter). I wanted for it to be good, and that desire was enough to fuel my entire first reading of the book. My mind saw what it wished to see, which was a fully-fleshed out fantasy. Sadly, that initial impression didn’t bear out with further examination. The Night Circus, as it turns out, is an enjoyable book, but not a particularly good one.

Read When: you’re in the mood to shut down your critical faculties for the night and just enjoy some really great escapist description.

Recommended For: People who dabble in fantasy, but aren’t die-hard fans. Too many holes in the magical universe for actual fantasy fans.

Listen With: Low-stakes opera. Puccini, Offenbach. Stay the hell away from Wagner.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #31, Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

“If I didn’t have my mother to coach me along, I’d be living in a studio with bare walls, crooked blinds, and a futon on the floor, forever.” -Gretchen Rubin

Of all the books in the world, there are only two genres that I genuinely dislike: biographies, and self help books. So it is with great smugness and self-satisfaction that I have managed to avoid the latest in the Western self-help zeitgeist, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. For those of you just tuning in, Rubin went on a yearlong journey to improve her own happiness on her blog, which culminated in a book called The Happiness Project. It is now a #1 New York Times bestseller. The book was described by many reviewers as a self-help books for people who aren’t that into self-help books, but even still, I wasn’t interested. The principle reason for that is because I’m not that interested in my own happiness. Not, to be clear, for any sort of ascetic, self-denying reasons; it’s just that I’m Irish, and as such am at my most content when I am either sad or angry at something. Happiness would only bore me.

For all the time I spend thinking about my own happiness, I spend even less thinking about my home. See, in addition to being Irish, I’m also a military brat. I’ve had 23 homes, not including temporary living, and they’ve all been pretty much the same to me. I moved into my most recent apartment over a year ago, and I have yet to hang pictures. Making a home has never been high on my priority list. Nevertheless, I picked up Rubin’s latest effort, Happier at Home, while waiting for a friend at Anthropologie. And it occurred to me, while sitting in the wealthy hipster decorating emporium, flipping through a book about the comforts of home, that maybe I should reconsider the limited role my home plays in my list of priorities. I’ve lived in the same city for almost four years now, a first for me. I have a dog, I know my neighbors. Despite my best intentions, I seemed to have stumbled upon a home and I thought maybe it was time to stop taking it for granted.

So, I bought a self-help book.

Rubin’s book is divided into nine chapters, one for each month of the school year – the time she had budgeted to get her home life together. Each chapter had a different focus, and not all of them applied to me – I flipped straight through Parenthood – but they all had something interesting to say about the role home plays in each of our lives, and the ways in which we can make our home lives better. Rubin, like me, is an anti-hoarder, so I found her tips for keeping your house free of clutter in order to spend less of your precious time on earth looking for things like scissors (“keep a pair of scissors, a notepad, and a pen in each room”) very helpful. We also share the same propensity for what she calls “underbuying” – I very rarely upgrade my wardrobe, and though I will on occasion impulse buy weird stuff from thrift store – like, for instance, an Atatürk toothbrush holder – I will delay or talk myself out of normal household amenities like a laundry hamper, or an ironing board (it took me about two years to purchase a laundry hamper for our apartment, and I still don’t have even have an iron, much less a board on which to use it).

Happier at Home isn’t all about one’s physical home. Rubin’s observations on her marriage and family life, her physical and mental well-being, and how she guards her time are all well worth reading – the sections on home were the ones that stood out to me the most, because my home is where I invest the least of my time. But as in most of Rubin’s happiness observations, noticing that fact is half the battle. Though she never says so, Rubin is clearly a devotee of mindfulness – constantly noticing where you are, how you feel, and how you might improve those things. I am more of the tunnel-vision, don’t-notice-a-cut-until-it’s-infected sort of person, so reading the book was an interesting exercise for me. It caused me to sit up and notice things like the constant state of disarray my house is usually in, and how much time that adds to my day when I have to run around looking for things. And more to the point, it gave me some solid ideas for how to fix it.

All in all, it was a helpful read that inspired me to invest a little more in my own home. I spent a weekend cleaning out closets and drawers, organizing my bookshelves, replacing some things, throwing out others, and making all of it easier to find. I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to clean up my house at night instead of stumbling into bed after falling asleep on the couch. I threw away all my cardboard boxes, and I’m planning on actually hanging all of the pictures that are currently leaning against walls. I bought a candle.

Even so, Happier at Home is not likely to convert me to the cult of self-help. Though it is far more sensible and pragmatic than most books of its kinds, many of the common self-help tropes are still alive and well – the gratingly over-used mantras (“my own splendid truth” is not a phrase I want to hear ever), the implicit assumption of privilege (Rubin admits that many of her advice is easier for her because she works from home, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow), and above all, the inherent perkiness of anyone who would have the balls to write a self-help book about happiness. But if you happen to be as socially stunted as I am in the ways of being an adult, or if you feel like you take your home for granted (as most of us do) and want to invest in making it more of a sanctuary from the outside world, this book is well worth a read.

Recommended For: People who don’t own an ironing board.

Read When: Your house is in a complete state of disarray. It will allow you to procrastinate, while still feeling like you’re addressing the problem by reading about it.

Listen With: The Smiths. They’ll help to cut through all that perk.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #30, Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

“To speak behind others’ backs is the ventilator of the heart.” -Marjane Satrapi

I read the entirety of Embroideries in twenty minutes, while standing at my local bookstore waiting for a friend. It is a fast, and completely joyful read, as refreshing as a vent session with your best friend, and just as occasionally poignant. It’s a combination that Satrapi has become incredibly adept at since her debut, multi-volume graphic novel, Persepolis. 

Like Persepolis, the story is at least semi-autobiographical, and deals with the family dynamics of Satrapi’s Iranian family. Only this time, the women have the place to themselves. Embroideries is a brief window into the sex lives of Iranian women, told entirely through one afternoon tea, while the men are off taking their post-lunch naps. The women in Satrapi’s tale veer from traditional widows, to semi-liberated young women, but all of them have their areas of expertise (and their blind spots) when it comes to sex. The title of the book comes from the Iranian euphemism for revirginization surgery, one topic of many that is discussed and giggled about by the endearing women in Satrapi’s tale.

While being a study in Iranian sexual politics, Embroideries has nothing too political to say. Instead, Satrapi contents herself with exposing the women’s sexual proclivities and fears with nonjudgmental observation, letting them argue among themselves about the sexual knowledge they’ve gained throughout various stages of their lives. And while it is certainly not the cultural juggernaut that Persepolis was, it is just as enjoyable. I felt reading it the way producers of “women’s” film and television probably want me to feel about their product: as part of a uniquely feminine inner circle, alternately laughing in recognition and nodding in sympathy (and occasionally cringing at an unfamiliar cultural practice – I am never going to be able to hear my grandmother use the term “embroidery” again). In short (to honor the shortness of the book itself): Embroideries was a delight. Treat yourself.

Read When: you’ve got a spare half-hour and need something to smile about.

Recommended For: Chicks. There’s really no getting around that one.

Listen With: The ambient noise of people talking.


Amurph11’s CBR4 Review #24, The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

“What doesn’t kill us makes us funnier.”  –Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes, it’s safe to say, is not considered a serious author. She writes what is known as “chick lit,” an amorphous genre of contemporary fiction that, like “chick flick” is used almost universally negatively. Serious women do not read Marian Keyes, obviously.

Which I guess makes me an unserious woman, because I like Marian Keyes. Her writing is witty and charming, as perfect an antidote to a bad day as a glass of wine and a bath (two things I usually have/am doing while reading Marian Keyes books). I read most books the way you might plow through a bowl of pasta if you forgot to eat lunch. But at the risk of belaboring the old “chick lit=dessert” trope, I approach her books more like a stash of chocolate; I ration it out for when I need it. Such was the case with this book – I read in bits, usually after I’d had a bad day, and it would cheer me up.

Here’s the thing about Marian Keyes, though – her books might be on the fluffier side, but she’s Irish, and therefore cannot usually resist the impulse to add a dash of tragedy to even her lightest of fare. Sometimes it’s a small side note; sometimes, as in Anybody Out There?, it’s the twist on which the whole story hinges. The latter example was one of her more controversial novels – her longtime readers felt cheated into reading a tragedy, because it wasn’t what they’d bargained for. I felt the opposite: it certainly wasn’t what I’d bargained for, but I appreciated it all the more for it’s humorously poignant take on the grieving process. Nonetheless, it garnered a lot of criticism for trying to take on a more serious subject than chick lit writers are supposed to take on, aka anything other than weight issues and shoes.

Happily, the criticism seems to have slid right off of her. The Brightest Star in the Sky is another example of Keyes’ particular brand of seriocomedy. Much like her last book, the story of a serial abuser as told by four women who knew him, this one starts out seeming like a standard single-gal comedy. Also similar to her last novel, it is told from a variety of perspectives. I’m not a fan of this kind of variegated storytelling, and unfortunately this was no exception. The characters, connected only by their address (they all live in the same apartment building) are all dealing with a host of individual issues, some more serious than others. The constant bouncing back and forth is a bit jarring especially when towards the end of the book, we are introduced to the twist (spoilers ahead, for those that care): as it turns out, one of the main characters has been affected by rape.

Full disclosure: I volunteer at a rape crisis center, which means I can’t read or listen to people talk about rape like a normal person. My over-familiarity with the subject tends to manifest in two ways: 1) a virulently negative response to an unexpected rape in a book or movie; and 2) an immediate need to critically parse the ways in which that rape was represented. In this case, I had just gotten off a particularly difficult shift at the rape crisis center, and was unwinding with a book and a glass (read: many glasses) of wine when I realized that the explanation for one of the main characters’ behavior was that she had been raped.

My first reaction was to throw the book across the room and yell loudly, “Rape is everywhere!” This understandably aroused the concern of my boyfriend, who came in to investigate that the omnipresence of rape didn’t include our bedroom at that particular moment. In my defense, it had really been a tremendously shitty week, one in which I didn’t feel like I could pick up a paper or turn on the TV without “RAPE” standing out in big block letters. Its inclusion in a novel I’d read specifically to get away from thinking about rape felt like a grievous betrayal. My boyfriend sympathized, and then suggested I put it down, rather in the way one might suggest an unbalanced inmate remove a firearm from his or her person. I refused, making what I felt was the reasonable argument that “now I have to finish it, because it’s already out there.” I did this because, like Keyes, I am Irish, and we are a people that insist on poking our fingers into wounds repeatedly just to make sure that they do in fact still hurt.

I stayed up until 2AM finishing the book, and when I finished it, a very peculiar thing happened. I laughed.

Now obviously, I’m not Daniel Tosh. I don’t find rape hilarious, as a general rule. And though there are many funny things about Marian Keyes’ book, her portrayal of the rape wasn’t one of them. Just the opposite, in fact: it was so indicative of cases we often see in the rape crisis field that it started to feel like a PSA (I was entirely unsurprised to read a special thank you to the Dublin Rape Crisis Center in the acknowledgments). Her symptoms of trauma were lifted straight from the 1987 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But though they were at times cringeworthy, they weren’t funny. No, what was funny was the poetic justice the rapist receives in the epilogue of the book. Similar to the ending of her last book, the villain gets his comeuppance. In and of itself that is unrealistic enough in our society, but in this book, the poetic justice is so impossibly over-the-top that it’s almost intentionally comedic.

The thing is, though? It made me laugh. And laughing about it made me feel better. In my line of work, most rapists don’t ever receive any kind of punishment, whether legal or otherwise. They see no negative consequences for their actions, much less a (spoiler) conveniently placed block of ice falling on and crushing them while their victim happens to be looking on. We live in a world where closure regarding one’s rapist is often impossible, but for some reason, reading this completely implausible version of closure made me feel a little bit better, a little more able to let go of some of the more disturbing aspects of my work.

There’s a lot that can and must be said about the ghetto-ization of women’s literature, and the perceived difference between commercial literature and “actual” literature, but sometimes as an author you have to forget all that and just consider whether or not your writing is making a difference to your reader. Marian Keyes has written about serial abuse and rape in a (mostly) responsible way for an audience of people who are used to seeing both portrayed in only the most irresponsible of ways. She exposed a whole swath of the female population to extremely tricky concepts like victim-blaming and post-traumatic stress disorder in a way that was probably a lot more palatable than the way my colleagues and I do, with our buzzwords and highly researched curricula. And most importantly, to me anyway, she made me feel better about a subject that usually makes me feel horrible. There’s something to be said for that. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Recommended for: recommended broadly for rape crisis workers who are too exhausted to perform a critical exegesis on the pros and cons of the portrayal of rape in media after a long day at work.

Read when: You’ve just gotten home from a crappy shift at the rape crisis center, apparently.

Listen with: Something relaxing yet upbeat, with very low stakes. So basically, your local soft rock station.

Amurph11’s CBR4 Review #23, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

“You learn not to mourn every little thing out here, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.”  –Alexandra Fuller

I tend to hate memoirs – they’re always either too loud or too quiet, too self-aware or not nearly self-aware enough – but Alexandra Fuller is a welcome exception. Her first memoir,  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is an active argument for the ability of memoir to transcend. It is a tragic, larger than life story, with a setting that is so stereotypically exotic it could only have been brought to us by Colonialism™.  It had all the elements of a Grand, Sweeping African Memoir, but Fuller wisely eschews that route, choosing to focus less on the romantic aspects of tragedy and more on the human weirdness of it.

You get the idea pretty early into Fuller’s second memoir, that her mother would have preferred the grand, sweeping version. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is a memoir filtered primarily through the perspective of Fuller’s mother, Nicola Fuller (of Central Africa). Nicola refers to Alexandra’s first memoir as “the Awful Book.” Despite her lifelong desire to inspire literature – as her daughter puts it, “not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them), but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life, for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.” – Nicola is not satisfied with Fuller’s distinctly unromantic version of their family. “The kind of biography she hoped to inspire,” Fuller goes on to say, was “something along the lines of ‘West With the Night,’ The Flame Trees of Thika,’ or ‘Out of Africa.'”

Even despite her lack of romanticism, Nicola Fuller couldn’t have asked for a better scribe than her daughter. The portrait she creates of her mother is witty and bombastic, graceful in a funny, gangly sort of way. She writes about her foibles and eccentricities with warmth and believability, but  mostly, she writes about her pain in a way that is honest. That’s a hard thing to do in any case, but it is especially so if you’re writing about someone you are close to, and most especially if that person is your mother. Nicola Fuller is a woman of many wounds, many of which are self-inflicted, and some of which are the result of plain dumb luck, but all of which are written with a tremendous balance of sympathy and honesty. It takes a very particular psyche to live voluntarily in a war zone, and Fuller unabashedly incises it, taking it apart and examining each piece with an refreshing lack of melodrama.

Indeed, Fuller’s best writing comes out of the understanding she exhibits of growing up in a war zone, and the effect it has on the people who are in it. At one point, she describes a scene in which her mother checks her Uzi magazine for rounds before heading off to a Fancy Dress Party, a weird and hilarious scene that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever lived in a war zone. “War became our climate,” she remembers, “something you didn’t feel you could do much about and that you might remark on casually, using the same language might use to describe the weather: ‘Phew, things are getting hot this week.'” Fuller does a beautiful job illustrating both the sum toll that that kind of unrest takes on a person’s mental health and the kind of personality required to choose to live there in the first place. But any psychological study could tell you that; like every good story, what makes Fuller’s so affecting is her love for her characters. The way she balances the childlike awe of her larger-than-life mother with the unapologetic observance of an adult that has long since identified the fine line between interesting and mentally ill – and exactly where her mother crossed it – is nothing short of brilliant.

Nicola Fuller’s life is one of humor and tragedy, resilience and a stubborn refusal to change. It’s a great story, and a goddamn pleasure to read. And though it’s not quite the grand, romantic colonialist vision of Out of Africa she had in mind, one hopes that one day she will look at this magnificently written labour of love and on the whole, find herself satisfied.

Recommended for: there’s got to be a slim overlap of people who hate the likes of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs, but truly and unironically enjoy the musical stylings of Toto. I feel like those people would really enjoy this book.

Read When: you need to gain some perspective on the comparatively infestiminal tragedy of your own life. Because seriously, everything bad happens to this family.

Listen With: Toto. Obviously. If you have to ask which song, you don’t deserve Toto or this book.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #21, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

“If I look back I am lost.”  – A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

I’m officially on the bandwagon, y’all.

I will make no pretense of book-snobbery here: I started reading the books because I started watching the show one rainy afternoon, proceeded to rip through both seasons in less than two weeks, and was too impatient to wait for the release of the third. The Song of Ice and Fire series was the inaugural purchase of my birthday Kindle, which I got on the condition that it would only be used for a) books whose authors don’t need the extra money for a hardback, and b) traveling. As you can imagine, that latter condition has flown entirely out the window. I have spent most of the past two weeks with my nose buried in an e-reader, because these books are awesome.

If you’ve seen the show, I don’t have to summarize the book for you because the 1st season hews very closely to the plot of the first book (the second season is another story). If you haven’t seen the show, than all you need to know about it is this: it’s an ensemble fantasy that revolves around the political machinations of a medieval-type society with engaging characters and a propensity towards the graphic. If you like that sort of thing, it’s unlikely that you will be able to put this series down.

As it turns out, I like this sort of thing. I fell in love with the TV show the moment Arya ditched sewing lessons to pick up a bow and arrow and show up her younger brother – enough to keep up with the occasionally confusing plotlines and gratuitous objectification of women. Reading the books have been helpful on both fronts, managing to fill in a lot of those plot holes while employing at least 80% fewer prostitute fisting scenes (there’s a hole joke in there somewhere, but I’m not going to be the one to make it). In fact, this is one of those rare series that is probably best read in tandem with the television show it inspired; having a familiar face to connect with a character helps to keep track of all the names and their extraneous consonants (it also helps that the casting is so spot on – I wish Peter Dinklage were the star of all of my books).

Like many books of the genre, the strength of Martin’s writing lies not in prose, but plot (and seriously, the prose could use some work: apparently in Westeros water is only capable of “sluicing,” and the only sound a horse can make is to “whicker nervously.”). Interestingly, for a series with such a profusion of major characters, A Song of Ice and Fire follows the hero’s journey structure almost to the letter. The whole of the 1st book of Martin’s series serves as one big inciting incident, the best example of this being the Stark family. The Starks begin the novel entrenched in their lives at Winterfell, but over the course of the book, every single member of the family is irreparably changed, an upheaval that in turn affects every other character in the book. By the end of the novel we find ourselves in a very different world than the one we began – and that’s just the first act.

Luckily, despite being a fan of the hero’s journey as a plot structure, Martin is no fan of heroes in general. We enter his world as it teeters on the brink of chaos. The rules are ever-changing, and the only way to live in such a world is to keep up. The heroes, therefore, are not the honorable characters, but the nimble. Martin’s refusal to play by the rules in this regard forces us as readers to be nimble as well, which is what makes his books such a genuine pleasure to read.

Now, if you’ll excuse me – I’m already halfway through the second book.

Recommended for: The strong of stomach. And on a related note, the likely small population of people who love strong female characters but won’t be turned off by the period-appropriate-but-still-harrowing treatment of rape.

Read When: You’re at the beach. The overuse of the phrase “Winter is coming” will make you appreciate the weather all the more.

Listen with: The theme song of the show, obviously. That or bawdy drinking tunes about wenches.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #20 In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

“I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten – a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.” -Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit

If you’ve read anything by him, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you read an Erik Larson book. A thoroughly researched historical book written in a novelistic style. Larson’s MO is to filter a well-known historical event through the experience and perspective of something very specific – the invention of wireless communication through the first man to be charged of murder through it’s aid in Thunderstuck; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane through the chief meteorologist on staff in Isaac’s Storm; the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago through both its architect and the serial killer who used it as the perfect front to lure his victims. In his latest, Larson takes on perhaps his biggest challenge yet – to re-tell the lead up to World War II and the Holocaust through the eyes of William E. Dodd, the unlikely ambassador to Berlin from 1933-1937, and his insatiable daughter, Martha.

In the Garden of Beasts is, as usual, very well-researched; Larson uses Dodd’s posthumously published diaries as well as he and Martha’s personal letters, and a host of other resources. Larson’s research doesn’t just function as his credibility, though; it lends a nuance to his work that you don’t find in many historical accounts. This is a bit of a dangerous game to play when you’re writing about Nazis, nuance not being among the top 5 things people are looking for when they read about Hitler. But it’s what you get. Larson is objective but unapologetic about revealing the anti-Semitism rampant in the State Department at the time; the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews was euphemistically referenced as “the Jewish problem,” and it ranked fairly low in the State Department’s list of priorities for its new ambassador (getting Germany to repay its debts from World War I is, of course, number one). He also refuses to treat his subjects as stock characters, delving into the life of Ernest Rohm, openly gay leader of the SA (for which Lucas’ Storm Troopers was named) and Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo from 1933-34. Diels in particular is an Indiana Jones level villain, on the surface. A protege of Herman Goring, his face is right out of a Bond movie: that perfectly sinister mix of classic 40’s movie star handsome and obtrusive scars, which in Diels’ case were won from boyhood games of barefaced sword fighting. This is not a man whom one looks at and says, “now there’s someone whose inner life I want to know more about,” but Larson paints a picture of someone who was deeply conflicted about the Third Reich, but simply prioritized his own self-interests above others.  Diels was marked for death twice: once on the Night of Long Knives and a second time after he refused to arrest Jews in 1944. He survived both, and went on to testify in the Nuremberg trials.

There’s a picture about 2/3rds of the way through the book, of Hitler and Goring standing side by side. It is the only picture I have ever seen of Hitler smiling. He looks like a barber. Goring looks like a small-town butcher. It did more than any of Larson’s anecdotes to drive the point home that Hitler, before he was Hitler, was just another overly ambitious politician (albeit one with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder). Goring was an overgrown adolescent who was obsessed with his late wife and with amassing new toys. There’s a tendency for us, as humans, to want to discount the humanity of those we feel are truly evil: we speak of Hitler in terms like “inhuman,” because we don’t want to admit that we might have something in common with him. But he was not inhuman. He was a human, albeit possibly a sociopathic one. And acknowledging that fact, trying to come to terms with what it is about him that makes us want to relegate him to a different species so we don’t have to be associated with him, is what will ultimately help us learn to be better humans.

Ultimately, what unsettled me most about the book wasn’t Hitler, or Goring, or Goebbels (though Goebbels is a creepy fucker) – it seems obvious to me that the single most important thing that these men lacked that made it possible for them to go on to do the things they did was a profound lack of human empathy. Whether that was derived from sociopathy or psychopathy is less sure, and to be honest, I don’t really care. Because Hitler isn’t the most unsettling thing about the Holocaust. Nor are Nazis (though I did find it interesting that the inter-party machinations were like a particularly high-stakes version of high school, party members selling each other out for the smallest of personal slights). No, what is really unsettling about the whole thing is the willingness with which we all looked away. Larson describes Berlin beautifully as it was before the war, alive with culture, but ultimately what he describes was a facade. Berlin’s attractions were served up to travelling dignitaries and the German upper class to divert their vision from the atrocities going on right outside (and sometimes inside) the city; it was a disguise, but it was a very thin one. Hitler started by stripping away small rights, rights that were easy to ignore, rights that only applied to certain people, but eventually he became bolder and even then, we looked away. We were the emperor’s citizens, who didn’t want to admit he had no clothes – in the case of the Germans, perhaps it was because they were scared to admit the truth. In the case of the Americans, perhaps we were ashamed at how much our decisions were driven by the economic implications. Either way, the fact remains: we looked away. We did it willfully, until matters became such that we couldn’t anymore.

And the thing is, we still do.  Because here’s the interesting thing about us humans: we constantly dismiss anyone who commits an atrocity as inhuman, and anyone who lets them as stupid. Consider how we treat rape: we believe the only people who commit rape are monsters, and easily identified as such. But we also dismiss people who are raped as stupid, unobservant – “she wasn’t protecting herself,” “why did she get herself into that situation,” etc. We do this for two reasons: we don’t want to admit the possibility that we might count a rapist within our circle of acquaintance, and we don’t want to admit that we could at some point be a victim of rape. In both cases, it removes us from danger in our heads. Similarly, as a society we dismiss Hitler as somehow uniquely evil and Germans as at best foolish and at worst uncivilized brutes for not seeing where their country was headed and stopping it. Both of these are comforting myths, because it removes us, as good old-fashioned American humans, from having to worry about anything similar happening here. But consider the way we talk about undocumented immigrants. Consider Arizona. Hell, consider the fact that we have already had internment camps in this country. We roll our eyes every time someone compares anything about America to the Nazis, not because the comparison isn’t apt (though it usually isn’t), but because we know in our hearts that America could never be anything like the Third Reich. But the potential is there. The potential is always there. The only thing that protects us is our rights, and the only thing that ensures those rights is us, and the only way to do that is to never stop paying attention.

My hope is that books like this, that paint Nazi Germany and the lead-up to the Holocaust in colours other than red, black and white, can open our eyes to the reality of genocide. Because it’s not a war movie. It’s a slow erosion of rights, that leads up to an opportunity. When that opportunity is taken, we call it genocide. We express shock and horror. But it was happening, all along. We could have seen it, if our eyes had been open, if we had wanted to look.

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