Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

25079993Verdict: Heartbreaking and hilarious.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memor

Published by Vintage, 2012

Find it on Goodreads.

This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I do not know why I haven’t picked up a Jeanette Winterson book earlier. I loved this a whole lot and cannot wait to read more of her books. Jeanette Winterson tells the story of relationship with her mothers; both her biological mother and her adopted mother. I listened to her tell this story on audiobook and I cannot recommend this highly enough. Winterson infuses the story with her wry tone and wit and it was just a wonderful listening experience.

The family she is adopted in are conservative to no end and especially her mother (who she almost exclusively calls Mrs Winterson throughout the book) is often horrible to her. Listening to Jeanette Winterson detail the abuse she suffered would have been unbearable if she didn’t manage to always infuse her story with a sense of optimism. This sense of reflection was what struck me the strongest about this book. While Jeanette Winterson does not have everything figured out by a long shot, she is eloquent and wise and often deeply funny and this made this memoir a joy to read.

I will now definitely have to read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a semi-fictional account of Winterson’s life to see how she transformed her suffering into wonder.

Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

23346874Verdict: Beautifully written, unbearably bleak.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Vintage Books, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

This magnificent collection takes us to Glanbeigh, a small town in rural Ireland – a town in which the youth have the run of the place. Boy racers speed down the back lanes; couples haunt the midnight woods; young skins huddle in the cold once The Peacock has closed its doors. Here the young live hard and wear the scars. It matters whose sister you were seen with. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it matters a very great deal.

Colin Barrett’s debut does not take us to Glanbeigh alone; there are other towns, and older characters. But each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire – and each crackles with the uniform energy and force that distinguish this terrific collection.

Colin Barrett has a stunning way with words. Some of these sentences are unbearably beautiful. As such I can absolutely see why this collection comes this highly praised. But, for me personally, the stories were just too bleak in the end and in their bleakness too similar to each other.

The stories focus young men and not so young men who for one reason or the other are unhappy in their lives. There is a sense of hopelessness that infuses these stories, a sense of roads not taken and lives not lived. All stories are impeccably crafted but maybe too similar in tone. Short fiction is often a format that plays with hopelessness and sadness, but even so, this one was too sad for me.

Barrett infuses his stories with a great sense of place in a way that I really appreciated. His depiction of small town Irish life rings true (as true as it can ring for me who has never lived there).

My favourite story was the very last story of the collection: Kindly Forget My Existence was just the perfect way to end this collection. Here two former bandmates meet again at a pub in their hometown, trying to drink their cowardice away and attend the funeral of their ex-girlfriend and ex-wife respectively. The whole story is just pitch perfect and nearly had me up my rating. If you only read one story of this collection, make sure it is this one.

Review: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

39780950Verdict: Clever, biting, sad, funny.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Vintage, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this crackling debut collection Nafissa Thompson-Spires interrogates our supposedly post-racial era. To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.

A teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war of attrition against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer. And across a series of stories, a young woman grows up, negotiating and renegotiating her identity.

Heads of the Colored People shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic. It marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.

I knew I would enjoy this pretty much from the first page on. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a wonderful tone and an even better command of her stories. I found the stories uncomfortable and biting and so very very clever. Her characters feel real if often difficult and the situations they find themselves in are frustrating and perfectly rendered.

Some stories feature the same people again, which is something I always enjoy. I do like how this gave the stories more depth without them being incomplete without the added context – this is something that I assume is difficult to achieve but oh so satisfying when it works.

My favourite story is Belle Lettres: told in a series of letters two mothers write to each other about their daughters who hate each other. I made me laugh so very hard while also making me feel sorry for their daughters. I found it clever and mean and funny and so very well-constructed: the escalation was brilliant to observe, from tiny little things such as the signatures to the change in language. Another favourite was Suicide, Watch – again beautiful but very sad. The way Thompson-Spires characterizes Julie, the focus of this story, made me impatient – and broke my heart at the same time.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

36510459Verdict: Oh so beautiful but oh so very very slow.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date Read: December 10th, 2017

Published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing – Harvill Secker, January 25th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.

Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

In this historical novel, Jonah Hancock, a widowed merchant, comes into possession of a dead mermaid. While trying to find a way to make money of this, he crosses paths with Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has unexpectedly died.

My thoughts on this are very complicated. I don’t think I have been this unsure how to rate a book this year yet. Therefore, here are my thoughts, first in list form and then more elaborate:

Pros:

  • mesmerizing language
  • wonderful description
  • immersive setting
  • unpredictable plot

Cons:

  • glacial pacing
  • characters
  • meandering plot.

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read this year. Imogen Hermes Gowar has a brilliant way with words and I love how immersive her setting is. I could picture every single thing she describes, from the shipyards, to the brothels, to the houses of the rich and the houses of the merchants, to the parks and alleys. The dresses and the way people looked came alive in her description and this made for a vivid reading experience.

However, the pacing was glacial and the plot meandering. Told in third person from numerous perspectives, I am quite unsure what the main story was supposed to be. (Jonah Hancock and his niece and sister and their relationships are one focus of this work, Angelica Neal and her confidante another, her relationship with another suitor the third, Mrs Chappell and her prostitutes another, then there is a the subplot of Polly, one of Mrs Chappell’s black prostitutes and how she is treated for being such, then the search for another mermaid and so on and so forth.) While plenty of these perspectives could have been interesting we often did not spend enough time with these people for them to come alive. The two main protagonists, Jonah and Angelica, also stayed undefined for me. Especially Angelica was hard to root for in the first half of the book, although she did grow on me in the end. I wish the plotting had been tighter or (and I cannot believe I am saying this about a 500-page long book) the book longer. I would have liked more closure on some of these storylines (especially Polly’s!).

Ultimately, what will stick with me is the unbelievably beautiful writing. While long stretches were excruciatingly boring there was never a moment where Imogen Hermes Gowar was not in perfect command of her language. This alone is enough for me to be excited about what she will do next.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Harvill Secker in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – Maggie Nelson

31817301Verdict: Yes, Maggie Nelson IS brilliant.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: December 28th, 2017

Published by Vintage, 2017 (first published 2007)

Find it on Goodreads.

In 1969, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, posted a note on a student noticeboard to share a lift back to her hometown of Muskegon for spring break. She never made it: she was brutally murdered, her body found a few miles from campus the following day.

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s singular account of her aunt Jane’s death, and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. Officially unsolved for decades, the case was reopened in 2004 after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried. In 2005, Nelson found herself attending the trial, and reflecting with fresh urgency on our relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women.

Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was one of the first non fictions books I read when I decided to vary my reading a few years back. I adored it – Maggie Nelson’s particular brand of intellectual maybe even academic memoir writing resonates with me. As such it is a bit of shame that it took me so long to read another of her books. But now that I read this, I will for sure read all her other books as well.

A few months before Maggie Nelson published her book of poetry, Jane, which focusses on her late aunt who fell victim to a violent murder, she is contacted by a police officer – the case seems to have finally been solved (more than 30 years later) and an arrest will be made soon. This book chronicles this time where fiction and fact collide. Maggie Nelson and her mother sat through the whole trial.

She does not only chronicle the trial but also muses on our society’s fixation on murder, especially on murdered young women. She talks about this obsession while also never losing sight of the fact that she perhaps is doing exactly the same thing the media is doing: telling Jane’s story without maybe having the right. This reflexive self-consciousness was my favourite part of this book. She makes her own experience vey much the center of her work while also understanding this and acknowledging it. This is very brilliant. This focus on herself and on the role of her art is so well done and I adore that she does not apologize for putting herself in the center of her book.