Monday, September 17, 2018

One of Us Is Lying

One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus (2017), narrated by Kim Mai Guest, MacLeod Andrews, Shannon McManus, and Robbie Daymond

Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, Cooper, and Simon are all in detention. Outside the window, they all see an accident in the parking lot and their teacher leaves to make sure everyone is ok. While he's gone Simon gets a drink of water, and then falls to the floor, struggling to breathe. His EpiPen isn't in his backpack, and all the EpiPens are missing from the nurse's office. Simon dies. Everyone else in the room is now a suspect. But when the investigation tries to uncover who might want to kill Simon, it turns out he had a lot of enemies.

I was riveted from the beginning, and had so much fun trying to figure out who was behind Simon's death. I don't often try to figure out mysteries because I'm terrible at that, so usually I just go with it. But with this story I kept feeling like there were clues everywhere, if only I could just put them together. I knew there were red herrings because of all the kids who didn't like Simon or who had been hurt by him. He had made a name for himself by finding out people's secrets and revealing them through a app he designed which, as you can imagine, made him unpopular but notorious. And the four kids in detention with him definitely had secrets.

The book was narrated by the Bayview Four, as they came to be called, and getting to know them was one of my favorite aspects of the book. Bronwyn is a super-perfect excellent student. Addy is pretty much controlled by her boyfriend Jake, who she has been with for two years. Cooper is a baseball player hoping to turn the sport into a career. Nate has a very rough living situation and a bearded dragon named Stan. Because of their situation, of course they got to know each other during the investigation, supporting each other while trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Although I liked some of these characters more than others when the book began, I came to sympathize with all of them and really appreciated how they changed and grew during this experience.

I was a bit hesitant to listen to the audio version of this one, but there are four different narrators and they sound different enough that I had no trouble distinguishing them. Each chapter also begins with the name of the character who is narrating, so that helps. I got into the story right away and couldn't wait to get back to it each time. Altogether, a totally satisfying read that I'm sure I'll recommend over and over again.

Friday, September 14, 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

Once again I have read an entire book and, only when sitting down to write about it, realized that the narrator was never named. I keep falling for this - how do I not realize it while I'm reading?

Our narrator is a beautiful, wealthy young woman. Her parents are both dead and her inheritance will sustain her for a year while she essentially hibernates. She has found a total quack of a doctor (who I think could be a whole book herself) to prescribe lots of drugs for insomnia, including one that causes 3-day blackouts. She emerges from her apartment only to visit the corner bodega for coffee and food. She occasionally sees her best friend Reva, who is pretty loyal given how she is treated by her so-called friend who seems completely uninterested in her. Reva's mother is dying and our narrator responds by being annoyed at Reva's need to talk about it. She's also still in contact with Trevor, a guy she had a relationship with and now is half-heartedly stalking by phone. This is her life: live in squalor, take drugs, sleep, don't care about anyone, don't care about herself, sleep some more.

There's not much of a plot here, which is enough to drive some people away. I get it. Sometimes you need a story, or at least a likable protagonist, and this book contains neither. It's one of those books that everyone seems to either love or hate. I'm in the love camp. This person is just so screwed up, but I can kind of understand the motivation to just step away from the world for a while and get a whole lot of rest for a long time. I was a little jealous at times. Except for the part about the drugs. I'm not a fan, especially of something that will cause you spend three days doing things that are kind of out of character and that you don't remember later. She actually went out clubbing during her hibernation while on these drugs.

I love a good character study, especially when it's about someone on a downward spiral (see also: The Cry of the Sloth, etc.) But Moshfegh's writing style deserves a lot of the credit for my enjoyment of this book too. When not a lot is happening, you need to write about it in a way that will keep the reader's interest and she did that for me. It's hard to say exactly what about it is so good, but I think the dialogue and commentary is just rather colorful and dramatic somehow, and the narrator just has so many unexpected observations and dreams and strange thoughts that she recounts. (I mean here is a person who can't drum up any feelings towards anyone or interest in much of anything, but absolutely loves any movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.) It also doesn't hurt that all the characters are pretty bizarre and screwed up, not just our narrator.

This book is not for everyone. But it was definitely for me.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner (2009)

The characters in this story all live in an apartment building that has been without running water for months, and must rely on an outside latrine in their courtyard. Also in the courtyard is a heap of garbage, several clawfoot tubs, and a band of homeless children. The first person we meet is Olga, who works as a translator for the newspaper the Red Star, and must rewrite news in a way that is palatable and less upsetting than the reality. Her son Yuri works at a museum full of not original art, but replicas made by the employees out of everything from tin foil to chewing gum. His girlfriend Zoya also works there and lives in their apartment complex with him and his mother. Tanya works in the coat check at the museum, lives in the same apartment building with her grandmother, and has been in love with Yuri for a long time. She aspires to work for the airline Aeroflot, but needs to lose weight first to fit with their requirements. The final main character is Azade, the old woman who sits outside of the latrine and charges everyone for using it. Her husband, Mircha, begins the story by jumping off the roof of the building to his death.

He's not gone though. As his body remains under a pile of snow in the courtyard, he also visits the characters throughout the story giving them advice. Like Yuri, whose girlfriend Zoya is desperate to get pregnant, while Azade's son Vitek is trying to convince him to join up and go to war. But Yuri already went to war and hasn't recovered. He is plagued by the memories, by the ticking he hears in his head, by Zoya who he's really not happy with. But he's not taking charge of his life. His mother Olga is also struggling. She's becoming increasingly upset at the lies she is force to write for the newspaper, but she can't tell the truth if she wants to keep her job. Only her friendship with her coworker Arkady makes her job tolerable. Tanya is also experiencing pressure at her job, when her boss asks her to fill out a grant application, and the result is a visit from some Americans who want to see the museum and are expected to stay with Tanya while they're visiting. In the apartment building with no running water and homeless children terrorizing everyone out in the courtyard.

Nothing is going well for anyone in this book, but it's the life they're used to and they just do the best they can what with they've got. It sounds like it could be depressing, but it's not. It's written in that uniquely Russian (I think?) absurdist style that is funny but darkly so. Some parts - including dialogue - read like rather poetic riddles. It's a very specific kind of story and writing that I imagine is not for everyone, but I like it.

The story doesn't have a lot of forward momentum and it's rather thin on plot, so although I liked it, I didn't exactly fly through it. Unfortunately, I also wasn't really in the mood for it when I started, but once I got going I was glad to be reading it. If you like absurdity and Russia and quirky characters, you might want to give it a try.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Radical Element

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls, edited by Jessica Spotswood (2018)

Back of November of 2016 I posted about A Tyranny of Petticoats, a feminist anthology edited by Jessica Spotswood. The Radical Element is the follow-up, and it's just as good.

There weren't any stories I disliked, but four of them particularly stood out to me. "Lady Firebrand" by Megan Shepherd takes place in South Carolina in 1863. Rose is visiting an aunt and uncle with her friend Pauline, a free black woman. They are unhappy about Pauline's presence, but Rose claims she is specially trained to help people who use wheelchairs (which Rose does). Coincidentally (or not?) their visit coincides with a rash of crimes committed by a mysterious Northern Sympathizer called Lord Firebrand.

In "Step Right Up" by Jessica Spotswood, a young woman in Tulsa in 1905 eagerly anticipates the annual visit by a traveling circus. She has been obsessed by the high wire act since she first saw it, and hopes that this year she can finally pursue her dream. Ruby's Uncle Jack, however, is an abusive hothead who doesn't care what she wants and she'll need to contend with him before she can really be free.

Anna-Marie McLemore's "Glamour" is set in the roaring 20s and stars a young woman who is pursuing fame despite not looking the part, but she has a special power that allows her to change her appearance. Grace is Mexican-American and disguising her appearance doesn't keep others' cruel words from affecting her. It's getting harder and harder to pretend she's someone she's not, but how else can she fit in?

"When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" by Dhonielle Clayton is about a very unusual family with a secret they've kept hidden by moving to a new place every few years. Emma is tired of just being a teenage girl who needs to obey her parents, and can't ever form friendships because they'll just be over the next time they need to move. She wants to do something more with her life, something real, something involved, but she also needs to keep her secret closely guarded.

Interestingly, these last two contain otherworldly elements, magical realism, I guess. I remember from A Tyranny of Petticoats the stories I liked least were those with the same kind of elements. I don't know if these stories are just better or if my tastes have changed, but I was a little surprised at how much I liked "Glamour" and "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough." I was less surprised how much I liked the first two I mentioned. These stories are full of young women trying to make their lives their own, despite the expectations of those around them. In some cases, the characters are non-white, which proves extra difficult in the context in which they're living, and the stories also include LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. There are all sorts of ways these characters are being hindered from living their best lives, but still they persist.

I found the stories in this collection inspiring and hopeful, and just as with A Tyranny of Petticoats I also learned more about the historical periods in which they took place. The authors included notes about the settings and characters which give us a broader context in which to understand the stories. All together this was a very enjoyable collection, and I've found some new authors I now want to read!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (2012)

It started with a book. An unusual book from an unknown source with a cryptic message. But not just one - they were mailed to a number of people, mostly neurologists, and one of them contacted Jon Ronson in hopes that he could solve the mystery. He did, but it became part of a much larger mystery about the nature of psychopaths, and their prevalence in society. Ronson got to know Scientologists, a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane who claims he doesn't belong there, a CEO who may or may not be a psychopath, and a guy named Bob Hare who invented the test that will tell you if someone is a psychopath.

It's an entertaining story that feels more like multiple stories loosely woven together. Very loosely. You might say tenuously. Ronson speculates a lot about people who may possibly be psychopaths and weaves them into the story, which is not a complaint. Just don't go into this expecting a clear cut logical narrative.

I've not read anything from Ronson before, but he's clearly a fairly neurotic anxietal kind of guy, but not in a bad way, in a way that is relatable and a little humorous. I especially appreciate that after learning about the psychopath test and the factors to consider when evaluating someone he kept applying them to himself. Like if he did something impulsive or expressed a slight lack of empathy he would immediately worry that perhaps he was a psychopath, which would cause him great anxiety. It should be noted that one expert he talked with said that if you recognize some of the traits within yourself and are becoming worried that you might be a psychopath, you're not. Which was a great comfort.

A couple of stories stood out to me as particularly fascinating. One was about a woman named Rachel North who survived the 2005 London subway bombing, wrote about it online, and then was subject to harassment by a group of conspiracy theorists who claimed the entire thing was a hoax. I'm honestly not sure what this had to do with psychopathy now that I think of it, but it was an interesting and scary story. Another one had to do with experimental treatments in a psychiatric program where the patients were all high on LSD and doing very long intense group therapy sessions naked. I don't know why anyone thought this was a good idea, but at the time it apparently seemed legit to whoever has to approve such things.

One of the more interesting themes in the book was the nature of mental illness itself. The Scientologists really enjoyed making fun of some of the conditions added to the DSM, like Internet Addiction and Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Relational Disorder. They clearly don't understand that sometimes things cross a line and make it hard to be a functional human, but it does beg the question: where is that line? When is something part of human nature and when is it a disorder that should be treated? When is a person eccentric and when are they mentally ill, and is the line between the two just an arbitrary distinction based on one person's decision?

I found this to be an entertaining read, but I didn't think it delved very deeply into the issues. Rather it sort of meandered around in a way that was still fairly enjoyable. It didn't blow my mind, but I liked it well enough and it gave me some things to think about.