Life’s funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there’s still so much of a life to get through.

three_stars

The Woman Upstairs CoverNora, the self-described “woman upstairs,” leads a life of quiet desperation as a failed artist and third-grade teacher until she meets and becomes obsessed with a family of three for a year.

Warning: This review may be a bit spoiler-y.

In the beginning of this novel, the narrator, Nora, announces that she is very angry. This assertive statement up-front set what I thought was the premise for the book, the cause of Nora’s anger and what she does about it. But actually, we don’t learn the cause of her anger until the very end. (I really was waiting for it to come out on every page, which kept me reading, but also peeved me a bit.) Instead, we learn about a family of three that Nora befriends, and how she comes to “fall in love with”–or become obsessed with–each of them. There is the adorable boy who the childless Nora wishes might be her son; the intelligent, handsome husband who the never-been-married Nora wishes might be her husband; and the exotic, beautiful, emerging artist Sirena, who of course Nora wants to be.

The reader spends a lot of time in Nora’s mind, and we get to make up our own minds whether Nora’s obsession is justified. It seemed to me that Nora couldn’t see past her own self-involvement to realize how self-involved her objects of affection were. She misses all the more and more blatant clues that the reader is given, which tell us that these people–at least the two adults, and the child is only an ordinary child, after all–are simply unworthy of the pedestal Nora has put them on. In fact, the most rational character in the novel is Nora’s friend Didi, and if I were to reread this, I would pay close attention to everything she says, because she speaks the truth. Yes, I did recognize a little of myself in Nora, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. I’m in my early 40′s, and I know that there are things I’ll probably never do in my life, things I might have dreamed of doing when I was younger. But Nora isn’t just resigning herself to some of the uncomfortable truths of growing older; she isn’t taking responsibility for her life in any way, large or small, but looking for somebody–anybody–to come and rescue her. It’s hard to respect a person like that.

When we get to the betrayal of Nora by Sirena finally–and it is indeed a terrible betrayal; well, all betrayals are terrible, but this one falls on the worse end of the spectrum–I hope that it is Nora’s anger that actually sets her free. We don’t find out what happens afterward, but I’m hoping what happens is that she gets off the couch and starts making her own life, instead of looking for others to provide her with a life ready-made. I hope she just wakes the hell up.

I gave this book a lower rating because it didn’t meet my expectations and because I occasionally grew impatient with the narrator’s voice and with waiting for something to happen. But it really deserves an extra half-star, because it did make me think quite a bit about Nora’s choices and about how women often feel constrained for taking responsibility for their own lives. The Woman Upstairs is not exactly my kind of book, but it is a book worth reading nevertheless.


To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

four_stars

Esther Greenwood is a young woman struggling to make herself look and feel like all the other college-age women around her. Toward the end of her summer internship at a New York City fashion magazine, the veneer cracks and she is no longer able to keep up the facade. She returns to her suburban home in Massachusetts, and after learning she was turned down for a writing program to Harvard, succumbs to clinical depression, a disease that was barely recognized when this novel was published in 1963. She attempts suicide, nearly succeeds, and then is confined to an asylum with other women until she is “cured.”

At first, I really didn’t like Esther. I thought she was vacuous and shallow. That was before I realized that she was putting forth a persona, the girl that she thought she was supposed to be, the “normal” girl. Once that persona started slipping, I came to understand her and sympathize with her. Knowing this novel was fairly autobiographical only made it come across as more tragic. For those of us who don’t have firsthand knowledge of what severe clinical depression is like, The Bell Jar is an invaluable tool for understanding. But the “bell jar” of the title doesn’t only refer to the trap that imprisons the depressed person in a deadened world where feeling is not possible. It also refers to the trap that imprisoned young women of the time, who had few options other than getting an Mrs. degree. This novel is about the struggle to escape both jars.

If you liked this book, you may also like: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken KeseyThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel


The Keep Coerfour_stars

Out of money and options, Danny travels to an unnamed Eastern European country to join his cousin Howard in renovating a decrepit castle, where family secrets are dredged up in this story within a story.

The Keep is a strange book, and I’m still not sure how I felt about it. What drew me in was the gothic setting, which Egan’s prose brings to life. It is situated on a mountaintop overlooking a quaint, Old World village, and it contains a tower called the keep, inhabited by a crazy, ancient baroness who is the last of the family that originally owned the castle and who refuses to leave; a murky pool where twin children were said to have drowned, which may be inhabited by ghosts; and a maze of tunnels underneath that include a torture chamber complete with manacled skeletons. It all sounds a bit too much, but Egan is playing with us, as we soon discover. For Danny’s story is actually an assignment that a guy named Ray is writing for a class he is taking at the prison where he is incarcerated.

So what is real, and what isn’t real? Egan doesn’t tell us. Danny’s story gets more and more surreal, as he first falls out of a window and suffers a head injury, then tries to get away from the castle and fails. (By the way, why do these surreal journeys always take place in Central European locations? I believe this is the third novel I’ve read with that premise.) I did find Danny’s story and the castle more compelling than Ray’s story and the prison, and it is is Danny’s story that keeps me reading.

At the end, I think Egan gives us enough information to formulate some answers. I won’t divulge my thinking, because that would be too spoiler-y, but for me, the ending was a bit too on the nose. Overall, though, I liked the book, and I was interested in what Egan was trying to do. She may not have completely pulled off the experimental aspects of the novel, but at least she was willing to play with the narrative structure, and for what it’s worth, she nailed the gothic nature of the story. She could have stuck to that, and this would have been a very entertaining book.

If you liked this book, you may also like: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters; Into the Forest by Jean Hegland; The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro


four_stars

This review contains spoilers.

After his mother dies, 13-year-old Joel is summoned to live with his father in a decrepit house with eccentric family members and discovers who he is over the course of a sultry summer.

I have read that Truman Capote said about this book that “somebody had to write the fairy Huck Finn.” I know a little about  Capote, or I think I know something about him. I think he was ambitious and yearned to take what he assumed was his rightful place among the great writers of American literature. I don’t think this first novel of his even approaches Huckleberry Finn in terms of influence or achievement. About the only thing the two books have in common is a young male protagonist and a deep South setting. But if we put comparisons aside, it is a very interesting novel in its own right, even if I did have ambivalent feelings toward it after finishing it.

I doubt Capote invented the Southern gothic, but this novel is stuffed with the tropes of that genre. Joel goes to live in an isolated, crumbling mansion, stuffed with dusty, heavy, antique furniture and surrounded by  a weed-infested overgrown garden. He goes to live with a full complement of eccentric characters as decrepit as the house: the aging, dotty, Southern belle aunt; the effeminate, dissolute uncle; the invalid father hidden away in the back bedroom. The African-American characters, by contrast — especially Zoo, the housemaid — are primitive, spiritual, almost caricatures with their bizarre names (Jesus Fever, Little Sunshine). Capote throws in a healthy dose of the Grotesque, culminating in a mule charging off an interior balcony in a crumbling hotel and hanging itself.

Capote’s language perfectly mirrors the mood of his book and the humid Alabama summer during which it takes place. His writing is languid, slow-moving, evocative of sultry afternoons when there is nothing to do. Without this wonderful writing, this book wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. Not a lot happens, and the reader is left to question what little that does take place. After Joel tries to run away from home and ends up catching pneumonia, the story takes on a surreal aspect where not much is explained. In the end, we are wondering whether Joel consciously chooses to stay in this place, which seems caught in a bubble of time, or  is he compelled to stay there because there is really nowhere else where he can fit, similar to Zoo’s predicament after she returns from her ill-fated journey to Washington DC?

I may not have fully understood this book, but I am glad I read it. Capote’s writing captivated me, and I think Other Voices, Other Rooms earns an important place in Southern literature, although perhaps not the place that Capote envisioned for it. It depicts the decay and dissolution of the old South, an inevitability that Southerners are still perhaps in denial of today.

If you liked this book, you may also like: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


four_stars

Hound of the Baskervilles coverA demonic hound is terrorizing the Baskerville family.

I have to admit that the first thing I thought upon finishing this book was: “I would have gotten away with it first if it hadn’t been for that meddling detective!” To be fair, Conan Doyle long preceded Scooby-Doo, and the writing is much better. But in terms of plot, they certainly could be kissing cousins.

I remember reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes as a kid, although I don’t remember which stories I read, or if this famous novel was among them. I have the Puffin Classics edition, and I think this novel, and Sherlock Holmes in general, holds up well for young readers. Conan Doyle’s writing is clean, straightforward, and evocative. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the moors in this book–they came across as both beautiful and menacing.

I was glad to revisit Sherlock Holmes. After seeing so many televised and film adaptations, we can lose sight of the original work and forget that it’s also worth reading in its own right.

This story was inspired by the legend of ghostly black dogs in Dartmoor. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death.

If you liked this book, you may also like: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle; The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells; And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie; Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Final Solution by Michael Chabon


four_stars

The murder of his uncle’s wife, in what seems at first to be a random robbery, prompts police lieutenant Justin Savile to dredge up long-buried secrets that threaten his very old family and the monied elite that rule the small town where he lives.

I am proud of my Southern heritage, and I usually enjoy Southern fiction, in small doses. Too much, and I find it cloying, like overly sweetened tea. At first, I was afraid that was what Uncivil Seasons would be, as the Southern accents are so thick they almost drip from the page. Justin Savile lives in a small North Carolina town called Hillston, modeled no doubt on the town where both I and Michael Malone live. The town is peopled with all the types of Southern fiction, the old, wealthy families who rule the town, and the poor white trash raise hell on the wrong sides of the tracks. There are also a few eccentric characters: the homeless woman who spouts religious prophecies in the streets and the black music store owner with a great sense of style and a side business fencing stolen goods. And Justin’s partner Cuddy Mangum, who cannot shut up and comes off at first like a younger, wittier Barney Fife.

But there is an unexpected depth to this story and a surprising humanness to these characters. As Justin digs deeper into the case, and as we learn more about him and the people around him, the novel becomes elevated above a mere cozy Southern mystery. Through the investigation, Justin comments on small-town life and politics, his failure to live up to what his family expected of him, and his struggles to figure out the kind of life he really wants to build. At the same time, the people in his life reveal themselves not as stereotypes, but as full-fledged, interesting human beings. Malone invites us to embrace the caricatures, and then to look beyond them for the truth.

I was surprised to realize this book was published in the 1980s (although I should have realized it from the characters’ references to the Vietnam War). The story feels fresh and current. It was a pleasant discovery for me, and I will probably look for more of Michael Malone’s books.


Upon reading this introduction by Victor LaValle to a new edition of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, I immediately ran to Amazon and bought the book. It doesn’t hurt that I adore Shirley Jackson.

 




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