What I liked
I don’t want to be overdramatic, but, everything? I got this from the library on audiobook (a lot of my reading is done via library audiobook during my daily commute). It’s completely absorbing. By the time I finished (on a walk, luckily, given the final actions), I’d already asked my local bookstore to order a print copy for me. I’ve been rereading it with pencil in hand, making notes on every paragraph, every word.
The characters are believable in a shockingly familiar way. Jackson paints Eleanor’s thoughts so honestly—I thought I was the only one who thought that way. And even when Eleanor’s actions don’t match her thoughts, the reader can understand why.
And the tension! It just builds and builds. Until the print reread, I hadn’t noticed that they don’t spend the first night in Hill House until about 1/3 of the way through the book, and not much even happens that night. Except that Eleanor gets her first good night’s sleep in years, which somehow comes across as sinister.
Jackson tells us right up front that Hill House is evil, “not sane,” “holding darkness.” After that, in a passage so beautifully crafted that it both opens and closes the novel, she hardly has to explain the why or how. We believe it. We see what it does to Eleanor. While there’s always a sliver of a doubt about how far gone Eleanor’s mental state was before she arrived, there’s no room for doubt about the experiences that all the characters share. Hill House is terrifyingly evil, and like real-life evil, it will never make complete sense.
What I didn’t like
There were a few interactions between Eleanor and Theodora that confused me a bit, but I suspect this has more to do with how female friendships have changed since the 1950s. Since the character interactions rely on the reader’s understanding of how human relationships work, this made them dependent on a particular point in time, with the existing social norms.
FWIW, I don’t think of that as a problem with the writing. It’s just something that took me out of it briefly.
What I can learn
Be honest inside a character’s head. They’re not writing a diary that others might find. These are their most intimate, irrational, reactionary, hateful, fearful, generous, delusional thoughts before they edit them into speech or behavior.
Trust the reader’s emotional and social intelligence. We’ve all been there. So sketch a scene with behaviors and dialogue and let the reader figure out what’s going on under the surface.
Include only the right details in the right places. Which is way easier said than done, but relies a lot on the previous point.
Use “telling” sparingly for the greatest effect. Show everything else through someone’s eyes, subjectively.
A lot more… I’m certain.
What I liked
The descriptions and characterization of suspected arsonist Harry Peak, especially as seen through the eyes of other unreliable characters. His sister especially dropped a few details that made the reader realize she either doesn’t know the whole truth or doesn’t want to.
Similarly, I enjoyed the characterizations of historical staff members at the Los Angeles Public Library, including those fascinating directors. Although the book focused on an event in a place, it’s the people that make the story relatable.
What I didn’t like
The lists, mostly. Granted, this is coming from someone who loved Moby Dick. But listing out the types of garbage strewed along a fence line, the books being transferred from one library branch to another, the history of bookmobiles, and on and on… didn’t contribute to my understanding of the topic. It didn’t keep me engaged in the narrative.
And why do they ever let authors read their own audiobooks?
Given my day job, I know more about libraries than the average bear, I suppose. But I found myself fluctuating between “Duh, of course,” and “No, that’s not right.” I found several instances in which she listed a “fact” that was simply incorrect, including some about the place where I work. Which was frustrating.
What I can learn
Stay on task. It’s probably impossible to write a book about a contemporary topic that you don’t live and breathe that will be accepted without issue from people who do live and breathe it. So it makes more sense to me to stay on a topic that very few people live and breathe. If this book had focused just on Harry Peak and the fire or even the history of the LA Public Library staff, and less about what libraries are like today, I would have stayed more engaged.
(Note: This blog is the first in which I'm trying out a new format. It ran longer than expected. I'll continue to play with this to figure out what works best.)
For me personally…
I see a lot of similarities here between what Saunders is doing and what my WIP novel does. Which is unfortunate for me, I think, because this isn’t a “comp.” (Comp: A comparative title to give agents and editors and, eventually, readers an idea of what to expect. Next time you read a book blurb, notice how often you see something like, “For fans of The Time Traveller’s Wife with the driving tension of John Grisham’s best work.”)
Saunders and I both have talking ghosts. But lots of books do. My ghosts know they’re dead and want to stay that way. Saunders’s ghosts have mostly decided to forget that they’re dead so they can hang on to some semblance of life and hope. Mine look and act more or less like people, his are more monstrous.
I include interstitial chapters in the POV of the ghosts describing how they died. In Saunders’s book, the ghosts are compelled to repeatedly tell their stories to each other, gathering some new mutation every time they do. (American Gods includes interstitial chapters about the gods coming to America that are much closer to mine, although I’d already written mine when I read that book.)
I also include interstitial chapters with information about the world in various formats—blog posts, academic papers, news articles, etc.—but I wrote them all. I include fake citations as well. Saunders includes interstitial chapters with short citations from real-world primary sources, and he uses these to explore what President Lincoln is thinking.
Although we’re using these techniques in slightly different ways for different purposes, I recognize that my work will be compared to this. And Saunders does these things pretty well. So I worry that people will read my work with the assumption that I was trying to emulate (or was at least inspired by) Lincoln in the Bardo and judge me as failing at that goal.
But of course, that wasn’t my goal. I started this novel almost 10 years ago, and I finished the first draft (in which I nailed down these format choices) well before Lincoln was published. This is one of the really frustrating things about how long this whole process takes, especially when your day job doesn’t support working on your novel all day. What a privilege that would be.
What I didn’t like
Format similarities aside, I really struggled with the way the narrative is structured. Partly, it was difficult to follow, bouncing irregularly between narrators with only their names to differentiate them. The voices are pretty similar, except for the exaggerated ones that aren’t. As the novel progressed and I got more used to this, it became easier to keep up with.
But it is non-traditional, and so partly, I felt frustrated knowing that this only gets published because Saunders is part of the establishment. Publishers (editors, agents, readers) will allow him to take risks because he’s already been established as good, as respected, as intellectual. He no longer has to prove that he’s good. I cannot imagine this as a debut novel. I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a woman. And I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a person of color.
One could make an argument that the female and non-white characters are treated the way they might have been at the time. Fine. The novel opens with—and sticks with as a main narrator—a ghost who has a giant erect penis sticking out in front of him, so large he trips over it. Other ghosts have spectral orgies, one female and three or four males. Black characters and poor whites speak ridiculously. There’s a wet, dripping penis and a woman who was repeatedly raped, and some female ghosts who continue to be raped after death… And just, no. Enough. I’m so sick of this privileged white male description of the world. At least this book didn’t last as long as Ulysses.
Also, I was almost exactly at the halfway point before I figured out what the main conflict of the book was and got a rough idea of how the ghosts “worked.” This is frustrating to me too after hearing from early readers of my work that they needed the rules of my ghost world spelled out more clearly. And everyone knows that if you haven’t hooked your potential agent/editor/publisher/reader in the first two paragraphs (or, you know, ten words) with your main conflict, then they’ll never read on. And yet, there’s some built-in trust in the establishment that allows this work to thrive. Like once an author has made it, needing those things reflects poorly on the reader, not the book.
What I liked
By the time I got to the end—had figured out the plot, themes, techniques, and characters—I could more easily see how well this was put together. Problems above notwithstanding, it is well done. Using real-world citations to fill in President Lincoln’s memories was a clever way to both set the context and get the reader to believe in this world.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
The only excuse I have for waiting so long to draft a review of this short story collection is that I was too busy telling everyone I know about it in person. I stumbled across A Manual for Cleaning Women based, I think, largely on browsing algorithms in my library’s app. I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but these stories evoked the same response in my heart as hearing John Prine for the first time. An enthusiastic, “Where have you *been* all my life?” after a deep itch has been scratched.
I loved every one of the 43 stories in this collection, although I can admit that some are stronger, more emotional, than others. “Macadam” has become a common word in my house now. I think often of Sally and her children, of Melina and César, of Bella Lynn. Sometimes, I think of Jesse, Amelia and her pobre mojito, Dr. HA Moynihan’s toothless mouth, and the narrator’s mother, but that’s more painful.
The one story that set me weeping above the others—the one I listened to on audiobook multiple times and the one that forced me to sit in the parking lot after I’d arrived to work just to pull myself back together—was “Stars and Saints.” It begins, “Wait. Let me explain…” and tells a story of terrible circumstances all piled together outside of anyone’s control in a way that inevitably result in each character making the worst decisions for everyone. I can’t say more about it. If you can spare 15 or so minutes, read this story. And you might want to be alone and give yourself 5 or so extra minutes to clean yourself up afterward.
Did anything other than sexism keep Lucia Berlin’s largely autobiographical stories away from me until now? She does a wide range of unladylike things. But I enjoyed her stories of addiction and sex and blue-collar jobs much more than any of the Bukowski we read in college. Because she doesn’t try to make it seem glamorous or even that fun most of the time. She manages to enjoy herself despite the terrible situations she gets into, not because of them. She shows all the dirt under her fingernails and shrugs. Isn’t this the way life is, she asks? Messy and full of life and hope and heartbreak?
If you have a pulse and empathy and can read, check out A Manual for Cleaning Women. And behold humanity.
There’s a line within the first paragraph of Moby Dick in which Ishmael tells us that he heads to the sea “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” That line marked the first time I laughed out loud at the novel and convinced me that I was going to love it.
Although heading to sea occasionally is within my grasp (see my August 2017 adventure with Jubilee Sailing Trust, incredible although expensive), the more reasonable alternative may be to pick up the next book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. To send my mind to sea instead of my whole body.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Master and Commander, the first book in the series, I hesitate to recommend it without hedging. It’s always great when books teach you something about yourself, and I learned that I love hearing ships described. I love the talk of sails and lines and decks and masts. I love the incredible danger these sailors faced so regularly and how it brings them together as a family unit.
But as a single novel? It’s middling. The events that happen are more like vignettes rather than a cohesive arc. Because it’s the first in a series, the reader knows that Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin will survive, no matter the odds. And this series nature also prevents the plot and the characters’ relationships from evolving dramatically.
And still, I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook in the car—steering my own ship through the highways of central Ohio—and I can’t tell you how many turns I missed that month because I was wrapped up in an epic sea battle. So, if you also like tales of watery adventure, piracy, and ropes (a lot of ropes), give this one a try. I’ll likely revisit these characters when I next feel like knocking random people’s hats off.
In this fantasy novel, the first in a series, a teenaged girl comes of age in a world that’s suddenly not the one she thought she knew. It’s way more interesting.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but watching Kendra realize that her hallucinations are actually a view into the world as it really is—full of magic and creatures and alternate realities—is a delight. The reader cheers for her throughout the story as she discovers more and more people in her life are in on the deception, and she faces down threats without fully understanding her own power or theirs.
There’s no way to avoid being drawn in to the world with her, watching her figure out the rules, possibilities, and limitations while learning to trust her own instincts.
The author (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) does a great job at revealing this magical realm slowly, giving readers the outline of its hierarchy and purpose without delving too deep into the mechanics. I don’t often read series—too much of a commitment—so this slow reveal confused me at first. I finished the book with question marks still around what this all means for Kendra and what she’s ultimately capable of. But, of course, I’ll have to read the next two or three forthcoming books for that part of the story!
And I will continue with this series. Kendra is too likeable, and the world too threatening, to abandon her after Book One. I look forward to enjoying Book Two as much as I enjoyed Book One!
Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This most recent read was not the first and won’t be the last. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a novel I’ll revisit over and over again throughout my life, gleaning new perspectives and a new respect for it every time.
What do I love? The balance of detail between physical actions and internal monologue, including how one influences the other. The empathetic rendering of not just the POV characters, but every character, so you feel exactly what they’re feeling, in the full context of their lives. The contrast between Clarissa’s life and Septimus’s life, both so important, so essential, although not in obvious ways. The weaving together of their storylines throughout this single day in London. Their reactions to love, to ambition, to societal expectations. Their interactions with the secondary characters, and the secondary characters’ reactions to them, which we also see in stunningly honest detail. And so much more.
I reached out for Mrs. Dalloway on instinct, like looking for a rocky outcropping after a shipwreck, as antidote to the state Ulysses left me in. Of course, Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing this, so that’s no coincidence. Although scholars, and even friends, may disagree, I think these two show Woolf’s blatant superiority to Joyce. He may have written an “important” novel, but it’s unreadable and unrelatable.
Woolf shows that, as a skillful, careful writer, she can tell a deeply personal story about a single day through multiple first-person accounts and make it enjoyable and emotional. Not just readable, it’s re-readable, over and over.
Having such trouble lately finishing a novel, I set about browsing for something entirely different for me. Dodgers pulled me in and kept me engaged (and talking about it) from beginning to end. What a great surprise!
I found Dodgers through my library’s audiobook app when browsing through the African-American Literature section. It wasn’t until today, novel completed, I discovered that the author, Bill Beverly, is a white man. That may say something about his ear or my ignorance, I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how that knowledge would have changed my enjoyment of the story. Just wanted to mention it here for context.
The novel follows East, a young African-American kid who runs a crew standing yard by a drug house in Los Angeles. (Take that, Henry James.) East is conscientious in the way you’d want your accountant or lawyer to be—focused on every detail and driven to accomplish his goals, although maybe a little humorless. East’s boss sends him and three other boys in a van to Wisconsin to commit a murder. No cell phones, no credit cards, no weapons (in theory), just each other.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Or it goes right in the very worst ways. The amazing thing about the narrative is that it’s mostly a slow, cross-country road trip that’s packed with tension. Knowing what they’re going to do, every encounter is spiked with risk. And seeing their amazement at what America outside LA looks like leaves the reader wondering how they’re ever going to know how to go unnoticed once they finish their mission.
The author must average one metaphor per sentence when describing the land that East and the others travel through, but it's effective. And staying as close as he does to East’s POV is effective too. East may not be the smartest character or the most fun or the most violent, and he likely has a concussion for part of the trip. But his eyes don’t miss much. He’s constantly analyzing every situation, sizing up the risks and guessing at others’ motivations. This is how he has survived in LA. But will it be enough for Wisconsin? Or Iowa? Or Ohio?
If modern crime novels have this sort of character-focused, slow-burn tension, I’ll start reading more of them!
One does not simply *read* Ulysses. Because Ulysses is not simply a book. It’s in the format of a book, but I think that has more to do with the technology of the time than a conscious attempt by Joyce to find the medium that best expressed the artistic vision he had. Today, I imagine it would be some kind of interactive website or even museum space, filled with video, lights, music, and maybe some hallucinogens.
One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!
Read my reviews on