Review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

40539185Verdict: I don’t even know.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, February 12th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.

Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.

Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg, a land unkind to women, wayward or otherwise; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee on her way to America; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her cathartic voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own—whether in books, art, lovers, or other lost souls banded together by their misfortunes.

By all accounts, I should have loved this book as it ticks all my boxes; I generally enjoy memoirs written by women and those that focus a mother-daughter relationship particularly, I love memoirs that are told mostly unchronologically and academically, hell, I adored the first sentences (“Russian sentences begin backwards. When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”) but somehow this did not translate into me getting on with the book.

Sophia Shalmiyev tells of her relationship with her mother, or rather of her relationship of the hole that her mother left in her life. Drawing on literature and theory and many things in between she attempts to paint a picture of that fundamental loss in her life. Born in Soviet era Leningrad to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, Sophia struggles with the sense of loss incurred by her father kicking out her mother and then later emigrating to the US without her.

I did find her language clumsy but not in a way that improved my reading experience (which odd sentence structure sometimes can do for me as it makes me read slowly and carefully); now, I am not a native speaker so this might very well be a fault with me rather than with the book. For a book this abstract and intensely introspective, I would have liked the language to be sharper and more precise though (something that Maggie Nelson – whose work this has been compared to – does without a fail). There was also an abundance of metaphors here that did not work for me at all and usually took me out of the reading flow (for example: “The decade is a bronze disease patina – the green paste – on a doorbell that rings when you show up, and you do not show up very often.”). In the end, while I am not usually somebody who judges books on a sentence to sentence basis, I seem to have done so with this book, which lost me early with its vagueness in prose and never recaptured my interest.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

 

Advertisements

Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

40908694Verdict: Fablesque and moving.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative, Literary Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster UK/ Scribner, February 7th, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

The eagerly awaited new novel from the author of The Age of Miracles.

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, months… A world where you could even die of sleep rather than in your sleep.

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel is the stunning story of a Californian town’s epidemic of perpetual sleep.

I love literary fiction with a speculative twist (I don’t think anybody is surprised to hear that) and I heard absolutely amazing things about this book before starting it. The book does a wonderful way of depicting a potential world-ending plague without the bells and whistles of post-apocalyptic fiction. Set in a fictional college town in California where one after the other people start falling asleep and not waking up again, this book has a fairy-talesque mood that I just adored.

For me the book worked best in the overarching moments, when the narrative flits between different people and never comes close enough to add humanity to them. I found the prose in those sections stunning and the distance created worked really well for me. Here it read more like a parable than a classical science fiction book and I just loved this a whole lot. I adored how the authors opened up the closed narrative to give glimpses of the outside world and her depiction of the greater world’s reaction to the unknown illness was believable.

Karen Thompson Walker emphasizes the relationship between parents and their children, which I obviously enjoyed, but my favourite relationship was that between two sisters who were left alone after their doomsday-prepper father succumbs to the illness. Sibling relationships are a particular weakness of mine and those two sisters felt very real. I do think that the book was not always successful when changing gear from the birds-eye perspective to a more closely observed narrative style, but I enjoyed the reading experience immensely nonetheless.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK (Scribner) in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

33160963Verdict: Lovely and heartbreaking.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Simon and Schuster UK, May 28th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Reclusive Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her story, no one is more astounded than Monique herself.

Determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career, Monique listens in fascination. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s – and, of course, the seven husbands along the way – Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. But as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

I feel like I was the last person on earth who hadn’t read this book and I am so glad I finally did. That said, it took me a while to finish this because there was a bit in the middle that dragged for me – however, man, does Taylor Jenkins Reid ever pull it back together after the 50% mark. From that point onwards, I was so very invested.

On the surface, this is the story of Evelyn Hugo’s seven marriages as told to Monique, a rather inexperienced journalist getting the chance of her lifetime to write a memoir to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. But more than that, this book is the portrait of woman who honestly and gracefully bares her all to the world here. And I adored Evelyn so very much. She is by far my favourite part of this book; she is ruthless and ambitious but unflinchingly honest in her own portrayal. I could not help but root for her as she made her way in the minefield that is Hollywood. Whenever the storyline strayed from her, I was eager to get back to her and get to know her better. Monique on the other hand did not always work for me as the person through whose lens we are getting the story.

Told in effortless prose that compelled me to keep reading, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her story without unnecessary flourish in a way that let her main character shine and her side characters dazzle. I adored Harry beyond measure and thought Celia was wonderfully flawed but incredibly compelling. The ending ripped my heart out but I am so glad to have finally read this.

I received a drc courtesy of NetGalley and Simon and Schuster UK in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

25175985Verdict: Important, well-researched, infuriating, empowering.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, April 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Women are standing up and #shoutingback. In a culture that’s driven by social media, for the first time women are using this online space (@EverydaySexism www.everydaysexism.com) to come together, share their stories and encourage a new generation to recognise the problems that women face. This book is a call to arms in a new wave of feminism and it proves sexism is endemic – socially, politically and economically. But women won’t stand for it. The Everyday Sexism Project is grounded in reality; packed with substance, validity and integrity it shows that women will no longer tolerate a society that ignores the dangers and endless effects of sexism.

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she’d initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.

This bold, jaunty and ultimately intelligent book is the first to give a collective online voice to the protest against sexism. This game changing book is a juggernaut of stories, often shocking, sometimes amusing and always poignant – it is a must read for every inquisitive, no-nonsense modern woman.

I started listening to this as a sort of antidote to the misery that was It by Stephen King (which I have since put on hold and I am not sure I will pick back up again, I struggled with the depiction of sexism and racism and homophobia), and while this was certainly not a fun book, it was one that I thoroughly recommend and one that I am so very glad to have read.

Laura Bates talks about sexism here, the small acts and the larger acts and how they together form a society that is not particularly nice to women (or men for that matter). Drawing on the extensive collection of women’s experiences with sexism and an impressive amount of research, Bates has written an incredibly important book here and one that should be required reading. While I think she could have adressed intersectionality a bit better in parts, she did it a lot better than some other feminist works have done. Her chapter devoted to intersectionality was thus my favourite part of the book and something I would have liked to be more at the centre. But still, what an impressive book and man, what a kick in the gut to listen to her rallying cry of a last chapter that is infused with so much optimism – because, for me at least, the world very much feels like a clusterfuck at the moment.

Review: The Misfit’s Manifesto – Lidia Yuknavitch

35011611My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: 24 October 2017

Published by Simon & Schuster on October 24th, 2017

Verdict: This is a bit like Lidia-lite.

Find it on Goodreads.

“When did we forget that we are not the stories we tell ourselves?”

I admire Lidia Yuknavitch: for her honesty, her brilliance, her resilience and for her genius way of writing. Having just finished The Chronology of Water I couldn’t not read this.  This book does exactly what it says on the tin: It is a manifesto for/ about misfits. Lidia Yuknavitch uses her own experience as well as the experiences of fellow misfits to paint a picture of what being a misfit can mean and what we all can learn from them. She makes a powerful statement on the importance of art and of channeling pain into something greater. She shows how she has found a place in the world, after many many a detour. She shows how her weaknesses can be her strength and the place where beautiful art develops.

I think, the main problem for me was that I read it so shortly after the masterpiece that was The Chronology of Water. That book just blew my mind and there was no way a book that is essentially the longform of a TED talk to even come close to its structural brilliance. She also rehashes a lot of that book but in way that creates a narrative – and I thought the strength of her other book was that she did not do that. She told of her life in fragmented, poem-like chapters. This narrative created afterwards feels somehow less true to life.

Still, she can spin beautiful sentences like hardly anybody else and her voice and viewpoint is an important one. I adore that she ultimately arrived in a place of strength and how she uses that strength to try and make the world a better one.

First sentences: “Misfit. Trust me when I say there is a lot packed into that little word.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.