Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

IMG_20171119_200942_211Emily Ruskovich’s genre defying debut Idaho is a gruesome crime novel, psychological character story, mystery novel, medical drama and love story all in one. I know, it sounds like a lot but in most of the categories, Ruskovich actually delivers. So what aspect of this novel should I focus on? Basic plotline: the parents, Jenny and Wade, and their two daughters June and May live a pretty normal live in the mountains of Idaho, until one day a horrific event changes everything. Jenny kills her youngest daughter with a machete while the family is on a trip to get wood for the winter. June, who witnesses the event, runs away out of fear and has not been seen since that day. Jenny is sentenced to life in prison. Wade marries again but his new wife Ann soon also has to take on the role as caretaker, as Wade is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. All these facts we learn pretty early on, so the book is not so much about the plot but about the rational behind it and the characters who are living it.

The story is told from varying perspectives; we get to hear from Jenny in prison, from Wade, his new wife Ann and a younger May. Despite this diversity of voices, we don’t get a proper explanation for why the murder happened nor do we hear from June after the day of the crime. This is where I am left unsure about how I feel about the novel. I do find parts of the way the story is told very unusual and I like how certain events are left open for interpretation but I was also infuriated at times about how little information we get. I know this is a bit of a paradox but I don’t know how to explain it better. What I found most captivating about the novel is also what disturbed me the most. Why would a mother just kill her child out of the blue without any reason? Where is June? Was it really Jenny who did this?

The longer I think about it, the more difficult it becomes for me to decide if I think this is a “good” novel. The writing is absolutely beautiful and Ruskovich creates a dense and imaginative literary version of Idaho that totally blew me away. At the same time though I felt like something was missing. Whether this was an intentional comment by Roskovich on how crimes like these always remain in some ways incomprehensible to those left behind, I don’t know. But I felt like I could read something of that sort in between the lines:

Jenny’s absence seems to describe her better than her presence does; she is a looming vessel of her own withholding.

Maybe she left things open so that we would get to make up our own theories and indeed, I developed a few of those. It was intriguing to keep imagining different reasoning for the actions of characters. So I’m still somehow unsure. Impressed but unsure.

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Review – Ways to Disappear

46772.jpegWays to Disappear by Idra Novey is an experimental noir novel set in Brazil. The plot is centered on the disappearance of the fictitious Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda. Coming to terms with her gambling problems and hunted by loan sharks she climbs up a tree in the middle of a town and is not seen again. Now it is up to her grown children and American translator Emma to find her. Using the literary work of Beatriz and their combined wit they are not only trying to solve her mysterious disappearance but also the puzzles of their own lives, lived in the shadow of a literary genius.

The novel has a classic pulp plot filled with fast paced action and gangsters waiting in dark alleys but it also gets a good dose of magic realism, Brazilian atmosphere and feminist romance. It is like a noir novel on LSD. Novey uses multiple perspectives, transcriptions from radio, personalized dictionary entries and interviews to add to her very personal style. Even the way the pages are set is very unique, sometimes there are just a few words on the page. All these unique stylistic features point to the fact that Idra Novey is actually a poet and Ways to Disappear is her debut novel. I really liked that I could see poetry in her work, it gave her a whole extra creative dimension to work with. She also had interesting themes that she explored through the novel like the art of translation, how places can change you and the strange relationship between those who create art and those who consume it. I thought it was a great novel that entertained and delivered a critical framework around that entertainment.

Review: Elif Batuman – The Idiot

IMG_20171014_161405552.jpgThe novel is set in 1995. Selin the daughter of Turkish immigrants is attending her first year at Harvard. She studies Russian, Language and Art and falls in love with her Hungarian classmate Ivan. Somewhat accidentally they begin to write Emails to each other. When in the second half of the novel Ivan goes to Hungary for the summer, Selin follows him there to teach English and see the Europe.

The novel has a lot of smart observations on culture, language, art, gender and love but since most of them are voiced through Selin, an extremely naïve young woman, they also sometimes made me cringe. And it felt strange to me that someone who has read so much (she makes a point of discussing the works of Mann, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) could be so clueless when coming face to face with the real world. It’s an interesting point I guess how a character can be smart and an idiot at the same time. While I was reading the novel I was hoping that some sort of change would take place and through having all these new experiences Selin would maybe get her act together and realize what an idiot Ivan is. Minor spoiler – this doesn’t happen.

Batuman sets a distinct tone for this novel. She wrote parts of it already 20 years ago, which to me made it feel all the more real. It is a detailed depiction of this very specific time when communication went through a phase of major change. Because she rewrote her writing from 20 years ago today, this makes it all the more interesting. Her nostalgia is informed by a contemporary mind-set.

To me I have difficulty voicing an opinion on this novel, I really liked the first part that was set in America depicting college life and love in the 90’s but I couldn’t really connect with the character that she encountered on her trip to Europe. This second part generally felt rushed (too many new character) and too long (didn’t care about the new characters) at the same time. I felt like a lot could and should have been edited out. This quote that I took from the book actually sums it up nicely:

“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”

Review – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

IMG_20170908_145849_047Home Fire is a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone, so the story is pretty densely packed with timeless themes like love, fidelity and civil disobedience. But the author put a modern spin on it and set the story in the middle of modern British politics. What made it a little difficult for me though, was the fact that the story is told from five different points of view and I actually could only connect with one or two of the characters. I still think it is an important novel that touches on a lot of the more difficult topics that British society is facing today, like immigration, dual citizenship, terrorism and racism. Although I had my difficulties with the book, I would recommend reading it because it left me thoughtful for days and made me question a lot of my own opinions on these issues.

Review: Der Mantel der Erde ist heiß und teilweise geschmolzen von Nina Bußmann

Nelly, eine Seismologin, verschwindet in der Karibik. Beim Rundflug mit einer Propellermaschine, den sie mit einem Freund unternimmt, verschwindet das Flugzeug plötzlich vom Radar. Das Wetter war gut, die Maschine war vollgetankt, ein Absturz erscheint unwahrscheinlich. Als nach einigen Monaten Trümmerteile geborgen werden, scheint der Beweis gefunden zu sein. Doch von den beiden Passagieren fehlt jede Spur. Verfolgt wird die Suche nicht nur von Nellys Partner, der in der weiteren Handlung keine große mehr spielt, sondern vor allem auch von ihrer langjährigen Freundin, die namenlos bleibt und aus deren Sicht die Geschichte erzählt wird. Als diese der verschwunden Nelly in die Karibik nachreist, begibt sie sich nicht nur auf die Suche nach Antworten bezüglich des Absturzes, sondern auch nach der Antwort auf die Frage, wer Nelly eigentlich war. Durch Erinnerungen, Gespräche mit Bekannten, gefundene Dokumente und Vermutungen versucht sie ein ‚objektives’ Bild von Nelly zu schaffen. Gefärbt ist diese vermeintliche Objektivität jedoch durch die Erinnerung der jeweiligen Personen auf die sie sich bezieht – Nellys Kollegen auf einem Forschungsschiff, ihre Mitbewohnerinnen in der Karibik, ihre Affären und Partner.

Der Roman ist atmosphärisch sehr stimmig. Ob Studentenwohnheime in Deutschland, Forschungsschiffe auf hoher See oder Wohngemeinschaften in der Karibik, ich befand mich gefühlt sofort an den Orten, die Nina Bußmann beschreibt. Die Freundschaft der beiden Frauen wird als eher unterkühlt, kalkuliert und von Missverständnissen geprägt beschrieben. Keine der beiden kann die andere ‚richtig’ wahrnehmen. Beide lebten in ihrer eigenen Blase, gefangen nicht nur an ihrem jeweiligen Ort, sondern auch in ihren Gedanken.

Die beiden Frauen zeigen außerdem Anzeichen mentaler Instabilität, sie sind beeinflusst von Depressionen, Ängsten, Antriebslosigkeit oder selbstzerstörerischem Verhalten. Vielleicht sind es genau diese Ängste die es den beiden unmöglich macht, auf die jeweils andere empathisch zu reagieren. Denn beide isolieren sich, können nicht aus ihren eigenen Zwängen ausbrechen. Die Reise der Freundin ist somit sowohl als ein Versuch der Flucht aus ihren realen und mentalen Zwängen, als auch als Schritt in die beklemmende Situation Nellys zu verstehen, in der sie sich kurz vor ihrem Tod, der im Buch auch als möglicher Freitod dargestellt wird, befand. Die Verschmelzung der beiden Frauen an Nellys letztem Ort führt gleichzeitig zu einer Art Auflösung der klar umrandeten Identität der Freundin. Als Nellys Freundin in die Karibik reist, zieht sie nicht nur in Nellys altes Zimmer, sie befreundet auch ihre Mitbewohner, besucht dieselben Orte, es ist fast so, als versuchte sie Nellys Leben zu leben. Immer tiefer dringt sie in Nellys Vergangenheit ein und konfrontiert sich mit ihren Emotionen. Sie imaginiert Ordnung und Klarheit im Ende Nellys, doch möglicherweise konstruiert sie damit nur ein gedankliches Gegenstück zu ihrem persönlichen Chaos:

“Im Moment des Aufpralls, vor dem Genickbruch, bevor die Wellen über ihnen zusammenschlagen, heißt es, zieht den Sterbenden ihr Leben vor den Augen vorbei. In aller Ruhe, wie im Film. Das ganze echte Leben: auf einmal eine lückenlose Linie, alle Tage, nicht die Alpträume, nur die Tage, in schönen kadrierten Bildern. Das ganze Flickwerk, sie hat es selbst so genannt, das Nellys Leben gewesen sein sollte, endlich in eine Reihenfolge gebracht.”

Das Buch ging mir anfangs sehr nahe, die mentalen Gefängnisse in denen sich beide Frauen offensichtlich befinden löste bei mir eine sehr große Beklemmung aus. Ich konnte zwar die Rastlosigkeit der beiden Charaktere nachempfinden, je mehr sie sich jedoch in der Karibik (oder in ihren Vorstellungen) verloren umso mehr löste sich für mich die Struktur des Buches auf. Dies mag einerseits ein Stilmittel der Autorin sein, andererseits war es so schwieriger, der Geschichte zu folgen und den Sinn des Ganzen zu verstehen. Die emotionale Nähe, die ich anfangs für Nelly und ihre Freundin empfunden rückte mehr und mehr in den Hintergrund. Vielleicht war dies jedoch genau das Gefühl, dass die beiden Freundinnen füreinander empfanden. Die Erinnerung an eine Nähe, welche sich jetzt im Chaos aufzulösen scheint?

Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

img_4524Dietland is a progressive, angry book about a feminist guerrilla group called “Jennifer”. Their plan is to change the sexist society we live in by taking pretty drastic measures. Rapists are being thrown off overpasses or out of airplanes. They want the public to wake up.

The novel however starts off at a very different place. It begins with 29-year-old Plum Kettle, a fat and lonely woman who works as a ghost-writer for a teen magazine. She spends her days in her friend’s café or at Waist Watcher [sic!] meetings, eating unappetizing and little meals while shopping for her soon to be thin self. She weighs 300 pounds but is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery so that she can begin the (thin) life she has always dreamed of. Dinner parties, dating, making friends, everything is postponed to her imaginary future as her thinner self. But things are about to change when she is being followed and recruited by “Jennifer”. Little by little she gets drawn into a different world and she ends up on quite a different quest to self-love. The women she encounters confront her with her ideas of beauty and perfection. They shatter the world she used to live in.

But the novel is not only focused on Plum, it’s also a very dark portrayal of today’s society. Half way through the book, the story switches from Plum to “Jennifer” and through her/their eyes we see a world that is shockingly hostile, sexist and violent. At this point the novel takes a completely different course: Gang raped teenagers are being avenged, media moguls are being kidnapped and stark naked men are replacing the infamous page 3 models.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look, the description of Plum’s and Jennifer’s world does not read as a satire. The instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that are being described are not at all unrealistic. What I was reading was not a description of a dystopian world but ultimately the world you live in as a women. “Jennifer’s” reactions however, the violence, the anger and bloodshed is depicted as over top and absurd. It can be interpreted as a contrast to the powerlessness that most women feel.

Sarai Walker radically questions society’s double standards and obsessions with beauty and thinness. Plum, the book’s main character, realizes that there is a freedom in not caring about the judgement of others:

“We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating if you choose to see it that way.”

Throughout the novel Plum radically transforms herself. Her struggle with self-love, looks (and weight) and the expectations to be perfect are, what Dietland really focuses on. Yes it is also about a feminist terrorist group, but it is mainly about how the mere existence of such a group affects the women who come in contact with them. In that way Dietland is a call to arms:

“The police and the “justice” system don’t take violence against women and girls seriously. If you’ve been assaulted or harassed, take the law into your own hands. Form vigilante groups with other girls. Sign up for self-defense classes, but don’t just use the skills defensively. Go on the offensive!”

The novel has a lot of different influences, ranging from Foucault to Fight Club. Women in the novel are exercising extreme control over themselves and their bodies; they have created strict regiments to fit a social norm, which was only created to keep them down in the first place. When Plum breaks free, starts to eat, enjoy her life and be herself, she sheds this self-imposed regimen of rules and deprivation:

“[…] Dietland, which meant control, constriction—paralysis, even—but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.”

As it mocks the less violent and certainly less angry chic lit that preceded it, Dietland transcends the genre itself. It will also be turned in to a TV show by no other than the genius Marti Noxon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that was also well known for it’s feminist and empowering approach.

Also, here’s a little snippet from npr about Sarai Walker and Dietland including an article she wrote for the New York Times. And finally the blog post that made me aware of Walker and her book.

Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

IMG_4098Bluets was given to me as a birthday present. I had heard of Maggie Nelson before but haven’t read anything by her. The Argonauts has been on my to read list, as friends keep recommending it but like I said, I haven’t read it yet. I am actually glad that I got to read Bluets first. It is such an extremely wonderful and unexpected little book, that surprised me in many ways, all the way till the end.

Bluets, part poetry, part memoir, is a book about the authors love for the colour blue, but it is also so much more than that. Each new page is a meditation, not only on colours but on life and emotions and how we live with them:

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

The book is structured into 239 very short pieces, each one dealing with a different aspect of blue. Some are historical or scientific facts, connections to religion, art and literature and others are biographical snippets of the author’s life. There is no order, neither chronological nor topical, the pieces could each stand for their own and yet in the end they shape a clear and concise picture. The connections between the short pieces are only evident in the end. The two main ‘story lines’ are a love that Nelson lost and a close friend who had an accident and is now unable to walk. Her feeling of coming to terms with these things infuses almost every page of the book.

Bluets is a brave book. Nelson opens up a great deal about her feelings in some of the pieces, describing a variety of feeling of which not all are pretty. Her journey to getting to the essence of what blue is, is therefore also a journey to her most inner thoughts. She writes about love, sex and friendship, sadness and loss and she manages to do that in a very heart-breaking way:

“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

Nelson definitely managed to make me see the world in a different light. She has sharpened my awareness for all colors, not just the blue. It is wonderful when a write is able to influence their readers in a way like this. Even after I had finished the book, something definitely stayed with me, influenced my way of seeing the world and made me question my perception of things. I think this is the biggest strength of the book. I am glad I read it. And I would definitely read it again, which I don’t say about a lot of books.