Review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

36203384Verdict: Indulgent.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Published by Hutchinson, June 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.

In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans.

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

I am in two minds about this book: while I thought there were moments of brilliance, overall I found it indulgent, tedious, and way too long. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcotts sets out to retell Truman Capote’s final years from the perspectives of his ‘Swans’, high society ladies he first befriended and then betrayed.

The strength of this book for me was hands-down the narrative choice to tell the story from a we-perspective, reminiscent of Greek choruses. As such she creates a cacophony of voices and competing narrative strands that I enjoyed. Listening to the audiobook worked really well for this facet of the story. I found some of these stories, especially Slim’s and Babe’s compelling and interesting to follow – but there were some women I just could not tell apart; they blended together in a picture of overwhelming privilege. I think Greenberg-Jephcott set out to make these women sympathetic victims of Capote’s scheming – but for this to work they have to be just that: sympathetic. But it is difficult to feel for people whose whole lives seem to revolve around gossip (who wore the wrong dress to whose party on a yacht is also not particularly interesting gossip).

The book would have been altogether a lot better had it been a lot shorter; as I said, I really enjoyed the narration and for the first two hours I found the glib narrative voice charming and interesting. But once it got old, it got really old and then I had to spent hours upon hours listening to what read for vast stretches like a gossip column. Had the book been 200 pages shorter and more focused on the compelling Swans (yes, Babe and Slim but also CZ and Gloria), I could have really loved this book.

By biggest problem, however, was Capote’s characterization. Come to think about it, cutting his parts nearly completely would have made for a much more interesting reading experience. While I know next to nothing about the man and he might very well have been awful, I found the gleeful hatefulness in which he is described both uncomfortable and uninteresting. He is referred to throughout the book as “the boy”, we are constantly hit on the head about his height (or rather, lack of height) to in a way that just felt unnecessary and steeped in deeply disturbing ideas about masculinity, and calling him repeatedly “the fag” or “the kobold” or variations thereof is offensive and pointless.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  6. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
  7. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

 

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Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

I did not always enjoy my reading (or rather listening) experience. This book combines many things I dislike in fiction: unfairness and characters that drove me up the walls being the most important factors here but also a fairly non-existent plot. But I cannot deny the genius of this book either. Anna Burns has a brilliant way with words and the atmosphere she created here is breathtaking in its claustrophobic intensity.

Told in conversational stream-of-consciousness, the language is the obvious draw here. Anna Burns has crafted sentences so wonderful, I was in awe. Listening to the audiobook worked exceedingly well for me because the conversational and circular narration could shine this way without me skipping whole sentences (as I would surely have done had I read this on paper). Burns works with thoughtful repetition here, making this a stylistically interesting book. Intellectually, I found this stimulating and I absolutely appreciate how she slowly but surely expands on her insular narrative in a way that felt highly rewarding, with themes flowing together and building a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, while I can admire the craft, I really did not enjoy myself. In the middle, I was very close to frustrated tears and wanted to shake the narrator. While I understand what Burns was doing, I would have prefered to follow a different narrator. She really drove me up the walls with her incapability of talking to anybody in any meaningful way. While nobody is ever referred to by their name but rather by descriptors such as “maybe-boyfriend” or “first brother-in-law”, some of these characters became more real than others and the narrator sadly remained a mystery to me until near the end. I might have enjoyed this more otherwise.

So, yes, it’s brilliant, yes, it probably deserves all the accolades it got, but it is very much not the book for me. Writing this review nearly changed my mind, because there really is so much to admire here, but fact is, if I hadn’t read this for the longlist, I would not finished it.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

18369376Verdict: Absolutely wonderful.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars.

Published by Hachette, 2010.

Genre: Biography

Find it on Goodreads.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

36112638Verdict: In parts brilliant, in parts unsubtle

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General fiction

Published by Penguin, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

Again it feels like I am the last person to have read a book – and again I am so glad to have finally gotten to it. I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You and while I don’t think this book was quite as strong, it was still brilliant enough that I will be reading every single thing she ever publishes.

At its heart, this is a book about mothers and their relationship to their children. It follows to very different women, free-spirited Mia and perfect Mrs Richardson and their children while at the same time being more of a pastiche depicting a small towns inhabitants. I really enjoyed the rambling nature of the narrative and was happily along for the ride. I thought Ng took incredible care with most of her characters and her command of language in describing these everyday scenes was wonderful.

For me the book got weaker as it neared the ending, when the story became less subtle and it became more clear what Ng wanted the reader to think. I thought this did a disservice to the wonderfully complex moral conundrum at the heart of this novel. There were no easy answers her and for me it felt like the novel pretended as if there were. I found the two women at the centre became less real and more archetypical towards the ending and as such lost power.

On the other end of the spectrum, I adored the way Ng handled the younger generation. All the teenagers felt real and believable and their relationships with each other made my heart ache with its earnesty. Especially the three women had my hearts and I wanted them to be happy; Izzy with her prickliness, Lexie with her strong moral compass that just so happens to not always include her own actions, and Pearl who just wanted to belong. Ng just really has a way of constructing believable characters that make me very excited for whatever she writes next.

Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

40217960Verdict: Mesmerising. Unbelievable. Compulsively readable. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Random House Audio, May 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of a multibillion-dollar startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end in the face of pressure and threats from the CEO and her lawyers.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. I sped through this audiobook in a few days because I just could not stop listening to it. There were so many unbelievable things in this true account of the Theranos scam that my mouth dropped open in a way I did not think happens in real life.

John Carreyrou traces the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her medical start-up Theranos from the beginning with the help of countless interviews and other insights. The picture he paints is breathtaking: of a firm run like a cult, of incompetence that can only be explained by a complete lack of understanding of science by nearly everyone involved, of unethical hounding of those who did see the bad science for what it was. I can tell you, if I can see the science as flawed it is really flawed – my knowledge of biology and chemistry is lacklustre to say the least.

While I overall enjoyed this book a whole lot, there were a few things that did not quite work for me. First and foremost the framing of the story – as Elizabeth Holmes did not give any interviews for this book, her story is told from the other end, which I am absolutely fine with and I do think Carreyrou did an exceptional job with this, but his clear distaste for Holmes shines through in a way that I did not always appreciate. For example, early on he uses an anecdote of her playing Monopoly with her brothers and being a super sore loser as an indication for how horrible and competitive a person she is – and I don’t buy that. Lots of kids are sore losers, most of them grow up not scamming patients. I do agree with his assessment that Holmes scammed her investors purposefully and did not care about the patients being misdiagnosed because of her flawed technology but I wish he had let me come to this assessment on my own a bit more.

As a case study of how the lack of diverse knowledge can harm a company, this book is priceless. There were many instances where having somebody on the board of directors with just a little bit of knowledge of the science between the big idea would have led to a totally different ending. I would have liked to have seen an analysis of the social structures in place that enabled Holmes to build her company and run it for many years without any pertinent experience as a 19-year-old college dropout just based on knowing the right people and acting the part. But still, this book is amazing in achieving what it set out to do.

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

40820097Verdict: My heart hurts.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA Thriller

Published by MacMillan Audio, October 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

This book broke my heart. I listened to the ending of this walking to the garage to pick up my car. And I had to wait around a corner from it to gather my feelings and stop crying. Now, I am famously easy to cry but I don’t usually do it outside, so this really does speak to how hard this book hit me.

This book follows two perspectives, that of Sadie whose sister has been killed and who is single-minded in her pursuit of the murderer, and that of the podcast The Girls, where West McCray is trying to figure out what exactly happened to Sadie after she went missing. These dual perspectives are the book biggest strength and listening to the audio version of this is something I highly, highly recommend. It is produced with a full-cast and impeccably done so. As a result, for me the podcast element worked exceedingly well and I always wanted to follow this part of the narrative. Sadie’s narration is brittle and broken and full of spiteful strength, which I appreciated but also made for a stressful listening experience (and I don’t always deal well with stressful). Her life is on a collision course with something awful, you can just tell, and the loss of her sister is only the newest of a whole string of horrible events.

I haven’t read very many young adult novels this year but this one I can wholeheartedly recommend. It is compulsively readable, incredibly heartbreaking, and important. Courtney Summers manages to tell a great story while also keeping her eyes on the climate that makes these crimes against girls possible. She shows great restraint in never letting the political core overshadow the storytelling, but the core makes her book all that more impressive.

Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

39690383Verdict: Fascinating portrait of a fascinating life.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Published by Text Publishing, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is an incredible portrait of a deeply complicated woman – and I adored it. Sandra Pankhurst owns a company specializing on trauma cleaning (after suicides and violent crimes but mostly for people with hoarding tendencies). Sarah Krasnostein followed her work for months and tells in alternating chapter of Sandra’s clients and her own, tumultuous life.

Sandra, who was born as Peter, adopted by a deeply dysfunctional and abusive family, married young and had two children before leaving her family. She is a deeply complicated person and a completely unreliable narrator as she freely admits to having forgotten large parts of her life due both to her own trauma and drug abuse. Krasnostein manages to painting a wonderful portrait nonetheless. I especially admire that she let Sandra be contradictory and difficult without trying to paint a coherent picture: because Sandra’s life does not lend itself to coherence and her contradictions are fascinating. She is able to extend an utmost sympathy to her clients, while at the same time being callous in the way she talks about her ex-wife, who she left without any financial assistance and who had two raise her two sons on her own. She was part of the LGBTQIA-scene before it was legal and now supports conservative politicians. She is empathetic and lovely to people she hardly knows and has not spoken to people she was close with in the 70s in decades.

My favourite parts were in the present, following Sandra and her empathy while dealing with her clients. I appreciated the way in which Krasnostein painted vivid pictures of very difficult living situations while avoiding sounding voyeuristic. The women Sandra became has my utmost respect even if she has done some horrible things to get there. Her life story is an interesting and in parts harrowing one, and it is a story that is well worth knowing.

The audiobook is extremely well done and I cannot recommend it high enough. The narrator, Rachael Tidd did a wonderful job letting Sandra come alive in my ear. I think the excellent narration lifted this book to a definitely four-star read for me.

Lastly, I do feel the need to point out that this book contains some seriously harrowing scenes; there is one rather lengthy and detailed rape in the middle of the book that might be triggering for some readers.