Reading progress update: I’ve read 83 out of 355 pages.

A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf

It’s fascinating to read Woolf’s reports on how her books were doing in terms of numbers sold and reviews (especially negative ones) when we know how esteemed they became and how they continue to sell. Time always tells.

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Reading progress update: I’ve read 83 out of 355 pages.

The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Review:

The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She’s 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn’t have long to live.

This is not one of those novels of illness where there’s redemption ahead or that’s supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say “you can beat this thing” if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it’s not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can’t.

One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it’s clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she’s plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn’t blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she’s able to have any agency during her illness.

If this sounds grim, it’s not, or not only! Dahlia’s voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it’s about gender.

The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I’m always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

Review:

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)

Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it’s written from Philip’s (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel’s. I’ve started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he’s childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.

I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He’s also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel’s character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it’s more nuanced, thankfully.

My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women’s roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

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My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

Review:

The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

What would you do if the laws of physics, of the universe, turned out not to be laws at all? Imagine you’re a scientist confronted with this realization. This is one of the more disturbing realities that characters must contend with in The Three-Body Problem, the first of a trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin.

The book does an excellent job of making the scale of the universe, from its immensity to its sub-atomic particularities, conceivable and real. One of the scientist characters has a gift that allows him to visualize numbers, and in a note the author reveals that he has a similar gift. The book is very intelligent and detailed in its explanation of science; I can’t say I could follow it all, but I understood the larger picture and was fascinated by the minutiae.

The book begins in China’s cultural revolution and fast forwards to the present, shifting perspectives from the scientist daughter of a persecuted university professor to a man working in nanotechnology. Most of the significant characters are scientists, with the exception of Da Shi, a corrupt, wily policeman who became my favorite character. The protagonist, Wang, learns of the deaths of prominent scientists and starts seeing strange things, such as a countdown that appears visible only to him. He is tasked with helping to investigate a shady scientific organization, which involves his playing a strange video game called Three-Body. Nothing is what it seems, and Wang falls down a rabbit hole (more like a black hole) that leads to knowledge of extra-terrestrial life.

This Chinese SF novel was something unique; I found its different style of storytelling often engaging, though sometimes odd. The translator explains in a note that there may be narrative techniques unfamiliar to Western readers, and I could sense them. For example, much is explained through pages of dialogue, and the narrative can feel interrupted by the video game chapters, as much as I enjoyed them. I struggled with the fact that, after a brief appearance earlier in the book, Wang’s wife and child do not re-enter the narrative, not even Wang’s thoughts. His thoughts themselves are often unknown–for a time I wasn’t sure where he stood in the quiet war going on.

Nevertheless, I do look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy (after a break) and to seeing the movie adaptation.

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The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Review:

Novels and Memoirs, 1941-1951: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight / Bend Sinister / Speak, Memory (Library of America #87) - Vladimir Nabokov, Brian Boyd

(Review for Speak, Memory only: four stars)

It was a pleasure to read Nabokov after so long. I forgot how easy it is to get carried along by the flow and particularities of his prose, sometimes to the point of losing the meaning of what’s being expressed. Speak, Memory is a kind of memoir of Nabokov’s childhood through his family’s exile in Europe following the Russian Revolution. I learned (or was reminded of) a lot that sheds light on his writing, such as the fact that he had synesthesia (syllables and letters had colors). He read and wrote English before Russian but later lamented that his English skills did not match those in Russian (if only I read Russian!). At one point he states that once he used a detail of his life for his fiction, it felt like it was no longer his.

If you’re familiar with Nabokov, you’ll enjoy the passages detailing or referencing his passion for butterfly hunting. In fact my favorite line in the book concerns it: “America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have–perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.” Lol, indeed.

I was less interested in some of the earlier chapters that focus on his extended family, but there were still fascinating stories to be had, and his prose is always worth it.

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Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, by Sarah Rees Brennan

Review:

Unspoken - Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass lives in a small town in the Cotswolds of England where the Lynburns, an old family with deep and mysterious roots in the community, have just returned. People are unhappy about it, including Kami’s mother, but Kami doesn’t care: she’s an aspiring reporter on the trail of a story for her high school paper (founded by herself and reluctant best friend, Angela), which becomes even more fascinating (and dangerous) when she comes across an animal sacrifice in the woods.

Kami has a secret of her own: she has a sort of imaginary friend with whom she communicates in her mind. This (male) friend has his own problems, and the two “reach” for each other psychically in times of need. This friend, of course, turns out to be real and a Lynburn. I anticipated as much but was still surprised by whom it turned out to be and when the reveal was made. The two struggle with the reality that the other is an actual person; their strange intimacy is not always welcome. Their bond turns out to be magical in nature and tied to the Lynburns and Kami’s family.

Threats in town escalate, and Kami’s at the center. In the meantime, she’s also at the center of love triangle involving the two Lynburn boys. The triangle isn’t terribly emphasized, but Kami’s relationship with her former imaginary companion yo-yos between easy repartee and angsty denial of feelings. It got old.

Somehow I didn’t feel involved enough in the mystery, and the tension didn’t come across as it should. In part this may be because, as in other YA I’ve read, the story is somewhat rushed or condensed, including the quicksilver of the characters’ changing emotions.

There’s some fine prose, one of the book’s saving graces, and lots of banter. It’s not quite as successful as Whedon dialog or Veronica Mars, but it can be funny. It also got to be a bit much.

Kami’s also one of those typical YA heroines whose friends are gorgeous, and she’s supposedly less pretty but still somehow at the center of a love triangle involving the new hot guy. One of the most sincere moments is when Kami observes how each of her younger brothers is a favorite of her parents’, leaving her odd person out.

I like YA but am coming to find it has to be exceptional to even be okay for me. Or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood!

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Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, by Sarah Rees Brennan