24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Category: Abby Reads (page 1 of 12)

Reviews of books I’ve read in real life.

Abby Reads: Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 2017, 80 pages
Essays

Drawing from her personal life and what she’s learned as a scholar, popular author and essayist (and famed TEDxTalk speaker) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes a letter to her friend who has newly given birth to a daughter in response to a request on advice in raising a child in a feminist manner. With fifteen short parts, Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions offers practical and evidence-based ideas to her friend and the world Image result for dear ijeawelebeyond, using examples from their shared experiences and beyond.

In one of the most succinct introductions to Gender and Women’s Studies I’ve ever encountered, Dear Ijeawele is absolutely a useful text for the novice feminist or pre-feminist. Certainly the collection of essays (most no more than a few paragraphs) lays out the very basics of feminism as it addresses things such as wage inequality between men and women, domestic abuse, gendered clothing, and workplace discrimination among other topics.

Adichie writes in a fashion that is superbly accessible and keeps from getting too into the weeds and thus keeps from scaring off potential new feminists with jargon and assertions which require an understanding of intersectionality and interconnectedness (for example, this is not the book for examining how poverty or a disregard for the environment also contributes to misogyny and vice versa). The unwillingness to dive into the depths of feminist theory — fine, of course, for Adiche’s stated purpose is a basic guide for a friend raising a daughter — does mean, however, that there is nothing new here. Adichie revisits old ideas that might just as well be found in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, perhaps with the added context of the Internet and other modern influences.

While Dear Ijeawele is one of the most simple feminist texts I’ve encountered, its prose does little to sway those who are not already feminists. And, frankly, if a reader already is a feminist, they won’t find anything here that is new to them. This can only mean, for me, that the work — while concise, simple, easy to read, well-written and organized, and all of that — is somewhat extraneous at the end of the day, and supplementary at best. Though perhaps useful in a classroom setting for an Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class, the book has little other use. Those seeking the advice Ijeawele seeks are not likely to see anything in the text they have not already realized for themselves. And while Adichie has a great opportunity here to explore intersectional feminism, she outright rejects it, and states in no uncertain terms that she believes sexism is a bigger problem in the world than is racism. She doesn’t explore the particulars on that opinion, even, so I am unconvinced there as well.

So, truly, Dear Ijeawele is hardly more than an introduction, if that. There’s no doubt Adichie makes important points and feminism is both relevant and crucial in modern times, but Adichie brings nothing new to the table in Dear Ijeawele, opting instead to reissue old favorites. The essays have value as ones that are well-written and as pieces that cover the basics, but there’s no incentive to read this over any other established feminist text. Many readers may well be better off with bell hooks or any other number of canon feminist writers.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 265 pages
Fantasy

After a bodiless voice tells him to do it, Ray Kinsella turns his farmland into a baseball diamond, where he awaits the appearance of long-dead Shoeless Joe Jackson in W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. When Jackson shows up, Ray knows this is not the end of this wild spiritual journey. Instead, he is compelledImage result for shoeless joe wp kinsella to drive from Iowa to New Hampshire in search of the recluse J. D. Salinger, at which point he will take Salinger to a Red Sox game and — well, who knows. Driven by complicated feelings about his upbringing and a desire to be a part of something bigger than himself, Ray travels halfway across the country and finds there’s more to baseball than he ever imagined.

I realize naming a character Ray Kinsella has narrative value in that it’s relevant to the J. D. Salinger connection (read the book for more information on that), but it felt pretty ridiculous reading a novel in which the author shared the main character’s last name. I think most of us can agree that male writers tend to do a lot of self-insertion (and, true, writers of all genders do, but it seems the men deny it to an extra degree), but this felt especially egregious. In any case, the name was distracting, especially as it appeared as a Point again and again.

The danger of putting Ray on a quest for Salinger and him rolling over in his doubts for hundreds of miles of driving is that the story can be monotonous at times. Typically by himself, Ray has little cause for dialog and primarily ruminates on his baseball field, its implications, sometimes his family (both the one he was born into and the one he’s created). He makes sweeping observations about American life and leisure, which can be interesting, if a bit pretentious at times. And, perhaps predictably, Ray falls into the unfortunate state of racism and sexism on occasion. One particular scene troubled me, in which Ray purchases a gun. In an exchange with a gun shop clerk, Ray and the clerk discuss how the neighborhood has changed “if you know what I mean.” Kinsella — both author and narrator — need say no more for modern readers, at least, to pick up on the fact that the reference, here, is to people of color moving into the neighborhood, particularly with the context around this scene. It’s a shame. Although I’m not one to believe a book must eschew racism outright, I do believe it ought to have a purpose if it is going to appear. In this case, the conversation was nothing but filler, rendering it as just a vehicle for racism. In many other scenes, Ray’s focus is on his wife’s body, her little girlishness, his daughter’s similar innocence, and other dehumanizing aspects of the few women present in the story — again, to no real point.

Though these moments might do little to illustrate any consequential character traits (at least insofar as they’re related to the narrative), Kinsella does an otherwise fine job of developing the inhabitants of Shoeless Joe. Both J. D. Salinger and Moonlight Graham are especially good examples of characterization well done. They are complex individuals with motivations and desires, developed to the point of realism. While I don’t know enough about Salinger’s personal life story (beyond the usual facts of reclusiveness and rumors) to imagine this characterization was either well-researched or accurate, it certainly comes across as reasonably real.

Shoeless Joe has been, in my experience, surprisingly overlooked as a piece of good literature. Capital-L Literature, even. The novel is slow-paced, to be sure, and not a whole lot happens. But the prose is delicious to turn over in most passages, and there’s no doubt Kinsella-the-author does a fantastic job at weaving magic and realism into a seamless example of magical realism. None of it seemed so outlandish that it couldn’t be, particularly in the very sacred context of baseball. Like lots of Literature, it does at times seem pretentious and lofty, but it’s the tolerable kind that adds to the story, rather than detracting from it. Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, Shoeless Joe provides another look at the American Dream, wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and the concept of spiritualism — and, it’s worth reading just to compare to the movie adaptation, Field of Dreams.

 

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010, 320 pages
Juvenile Fiction

In Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind, Melody Brooks is eleven years old and has never spoken a word. In her wheelchair, she often meets issues of inaccessibility, but as she tells readers in her first-person narrative, she thinks things could be just a little easier if she could express herself with words. Image result for out of my mind sharon draperThough she has some very basic tools to communicate about things like needing the bathroom and being hungry, she’s been unable to make many deep connections outside herself due to her cerebral palsy. When a new technology comes into her life, Melody is suddenly able to get more involved than ever before, but there are challenges she perhaps didn’t anticipate that must be met.

There’s no getting away with writing a review for Out of My Mind without mentioning R. J. Palacio’s Wonder. Both telling the story of a child with physical challenges (one more cosmetic than the other), both novels were published within the last seven years. While Out of My Mind appeared in 2010, Wonder came out in 2012. Between the two, Out of My Mind is superior for the simple fact that it does better work in not falling into the trap of being inspiration porn. Melody is angry and not afraid to show it. She is not always kind, she is not always understanding. And it is this that makes her a sympathetic character, paradoxically enough. Where Auggie of Wonder is known for being extra kind (and certainly this is admirable), he is also essentially awarded for having a disability, which boils down to something offensive — people with disabilities are more than their disabilities, and it is exactly Melody’s negative traits that demonstrate this so clearly.

Another success of Out of My Mind is Draper’s refusal to treat ten-year-olds like toddlers. Frequently, Melody’s peers do things that are cruel, even as they know they are wrong for it. Draper makes no excuses here, heightening the realism of the novel, which again further brings home the point. Even adults are not immune to mistreating Melody, though sometimes this happens — as in real life — with good intentions. The discomfort Draper brings out on the page is excellently handled because she does not suppose that this behavior is cartoonish or the result of a lack of realizing the action is wrong. Sometimes, people are just cruel, and where Palacio tip-toes around this concept, Draper takes it head on in a much more effective manner.

There are some shortcomings in Out of My Mind. On top of being a difficult topic, the first half of the narrative is startlingly slow and repetitive. This serves Melody as a character, of course, and readers’ empathy for her — just as Melody’s life has been monotonous and frustrating in part, as a result of her inability to communicate as others do, so is the reading experience prior to her acquisition of communication assistant technology. Too, Melody is said to have a photographic memory, but this trait doesn’t seem to play out in the reality of the story — perhaps this is a miscommunication of what exactly “photographic memory” means in Melody’s case, but she still must drill trivia questions as she prepares for a tournament in a series of study sessions with her neighbor/caretaker.

I can’t outright say that I loved Out of My Mind. Stylistically, I struggled with Draper’s writing and found it to be slogging in many places. There’s no doubt that the novel touches on a difficult and important topic, but this alone does not a great or enjoyable book make. Though certainly a useful story for a classroom, book club, or heart-to-heart discussion, Out of My Mind is not the thing to reach for if you’re looking for a fun, strictly-entertaining read. Still, if you’re between Wonder and Out of My Mind, go with the latter — not only does the book mostly avoid being inspiration porn, but it also was written by a woman of color and touches on life with cerebral palsy in a reflective and no-punches-pulled manner.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls by Lauren Graham

Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls by Lauren Graham
Ballantine Books, 2016, 224 pages
Celebrity Memoir

During my latest celebrity memoir kick, I blew through Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls. Graham begins at the start of her life and runs through the events of her childhood to her current life as, at the time of writing, she was in the process of finishing up the Netflix 40411206reboot of Gilmore Girls. A super-fast read at 224 pages, Graham’s memoir is fun and funny, much like readers might expect Graham to be.

Despite, or maybe exactly like, the title depending on how you look at it, Graham’s focus on her work with Gilmore Girls is pretty minimal. Graham discusses how she came to be on the show and a bit of her experience with the first couple of seasons, but her willingness to go into detail falters. Even in writing about her work on the reboot, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Graham avoids a tell-all, which is disappointing, given the marketing and timing of the book, which arrived shortly after the series became available on Netflix and, to my mind, was advertised as something that might be read as a companion to the show with information for the fans.

Interestingly, Graham provides quite a bit of characterization, relatively speaking, of Kelly Bishop who plays  her mother in Gilmore Girls. Meanwhile, Alexis Bledel, who Graham mentions being quite close to throughout filming, makes few appearances and has little in the way of description from Graham. Other co-actors, such as Melissa McCarthy and Yanic Truesdale, like Bledel, are so absent from Graham’s memoir that it makes the reader wonder if their relationships with Graham are so unhappy that Graham avoided telling more to bow to professionalism. If that’s the case, it’s rightly so, but what little Graham does offer suggests perfectly happy working relationships. Where many other celebrity memoirs are willing to share detail on how actors work and play together, Graham is hesitant. And even further, Graham largely avoids talking about the greater atmosphere and the process of making either iteration of Gilmore Girls in favor of describing her personal routines. While these are interesting on their own, it feels like a short sale for folks who are interested in reading specifically about how she works within the context of Gilmore Girls and her own understanding of her character, Lorelai Gilmore, particularly given the book’s subtitle.

Still, readers can enjoy Graham’s sense of humor. She never takes herself too seriously and frequently pokes fun at Hollywood culture and her peers. One particularly funny moment was a crack at celebrities who use ghostwriters, which she insists she has not done for this memoir, providing evidence via the novel she also wrote, Someday, Someday, Maybe — why, she asks, would she write a novel on her own and not this? In further detail about her writing process, Graham lets readers in on an immeasurably helpful tool: the kitchen timer method. Developed by a friend of a friend, the method is adapted from the Pomodoro Technique, which aids in productivity particularly in the craft of writing. Graham lays out all the rules of the method and encourages readers to try it — I tried it myself in a loose form and have already found quite a bit of success with it. Thanks, Lauren!

Graham could use more detail in most of her anecdotes and writing as well as a bit more clarity — though she regularly refers to family members, her family tree isn’t quite fully explained anywhere, which makes some of her stories and the characters in her life unclear. Because of what information she did share, the particulars of these connections felt relevant, and I ended up seeking out her family tree on my own which helped fill in some gaps of understanding and made her narratives altogether more clear.

Like many other celebrity memoirs, Talking as Fast as I Can is fast-paced and easy to read. Graham tells fun stories, but this is by no means an all-out reveal of her life, Gilmore Girls, or her co-stars. Still, Graham is intelligent and funny throughout, even managing to provide some excellent practical advice for readers looking for something a little more.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
Touchstone, 2016, 304 pages
Celebrity Memoir

You might know Anna Kendrick from Pitch Perfect, or maybe you recall her role in Twilight, or perhaps you were even following her back when she was on Broadway. In 2016, actress and American sweetheart Anna Kendrick put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more likely) to write her memoir Scrappy Little Nobody. Beginning with her early life growing up in Maine, Kendrick takes her readers through her life so far, up to the 29868610embarrassing culture shock of continuing to have little income despite major award nominations and what it’s like to work with everyone from Kristen Stewart to George Clooney. With surprising insights to her own personality, Kendrick surprises and delights in her first book.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent scrolling through Facebook and YouTube watching interviews with Anna Kendrick. Jennifer Lawrence might be considered the queen of relatability by many, but Kendrick seems to take it even a step further with her seeming willingness to be open about her home life and general awkwardness. Her endearing personality, she reveals, is largely misleading, as her memoir describes and demonstrates. Although she often plays the hilarious and awkward introvert in interviews, Kendrick admits this is often an act because it works so well for her. However, is it an act of controlled awkwardness that covers real awkwardness? Kendrick doesn’t say, and this adds an unexpected layer to ponder throughout the work.

Scrappy Little Nobody is fast-paced, despite the amount of time that passes throughout. Though earlier chapters describing her first acting jobs feel heavier than the remainder of the book (the remainder detailing her life once she gets into Hollywood circles, and, let’s be honest, the reason we’re all reading), her insight to working as a child actor and commuting between New York City and Maine provides an interesting look at how a child can both truly want to work as a professional actor and be overwhelmed by the task. Kendrick’s maturity is impressive in these anecdotes, which details an entirely other side many fans aren’t aware of.

It bears mentioning that Kendrick’s recollections of working Twilight are the highlight of the book, if short-lived. Based on Robert Pattinson’s brutally honest discussions of his time on the films, Kendrick might be working extra hard here to maintain professionalism, but what she does reveal is teasing and full of unexpected pieces of information. Again, Kendrick’s descriptions of her work are insightful and thoughtful, injected with doses of humor that make these passages particularly enjoyable.

Missing from her memoir is a full-circle moment. Although Kendrick focuses heavily on her relationship with her brother in earlier chapters — and the title of the book, in fact, is a reference to something he said to her — his presence nearly completely disappears after Kendrick gets to the West Coast. Kendrick is not obligated to divulge anything about her family life, naturally, but the influence her brother had in her childhood and her focus on it makes his lack of presence later feel unnatural. Why include those earlier moments if there’s little to know about the relationship now?

Kendrick provides lots of detail about her childhood and quite a bit about her adult life, but her late teens and early twenties are more glossed-over. This is perhaps little seemed to be happening in her career at this time, but the minimal information here, too, feels unnatural. Perhaps leaving this off is to the book’s benefit, however: fundamentally, Scrappy Little Nobody is a fun and quick read for fans of celebrity memoirs and fans of Anna Kendrick. One of the more insightful and seemingly honest celebrity memoirs I’ve read, this one felt a touch more unique than others and absolutely worth the few hours I took with it.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman

Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman
Dutton, 2013, 352 pages
Essays

Famed for his work on Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman pulls together his top life advice for readers in his series of essays, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. With advice that runs from the religious, to the handiwork, to the legal, Offerman’s writing often veers into Ron 17674991Swanson (his character on Parks and Recreation) territory. If you’re wondering what you’re getting into here, Offerman’s book can be boiled down to a few (mildly profane) words: don’t be an ass.

Pushing against this philosophy, however, is the book itself. Often, despite his protests to the contrary, Offerman comes off as pretentious and holier-than-thou, particularly as he discusses religion. He borders on the idea that those who appreciate religion are inherently stupid. Though he argues against this concept and states he can feel the opposite, given those of faith are not pushing their faith on others, many moments had me rolling my eyes at the hypocrisy. If you’re not a fan of folks like Richard Dawkins, who is known for his vitriol against religion, tread carefully.

Offerman’s attitude doesn’t stop at religion, of course. At times, his essays are nothing more than obnoxious manifesto, as if the book’s entire purpose was to give Offerman a space to let off steam. This might work well for readers who already wholeheartedly agree with Offerman on anything and everything, but Offerman isn’t doing much to persuade anyone here. Unfortunately, the topics Offerman touches on are repetitive. Again and again, it’s anti-religion (in some form) and pro-recreational drug use. While I have no concerns about visiting these topics at all, the constant revisiting made Offerman’s book somewhat hollow and bland.

Because Offerman mixes personal stories with opinion essays, he has a tough job of balancing the two in a way that reads naturally and makes sense. Unfortunately, this throws off the pacing of the book as a whole, making it feel entirely longer and slower than is necessary. Still, despite the title of the book, it ends up being more of a memoir than tips and advice on “delicious living.” And still, still, the instruction that does appear is starkly in the vein of Ron Swanson in many ways. This is further highlighted by a prose style that eerily matches Swanson’s speaking patterns, suggesting Offerman either does a significant amount of improv in his acting work or that he’s otherwise influenced by his most famous work in this book. The prose style, then, is okay — but not great.

Paddle Your Own Canoe was marketed for fans of Ron Swanson — the cover alone makes that abundantly clear; yet Offerman fights against the connection throughout his work while pulling together his thoughts on things in a way that isn’t terribly cohesive and is ultimately tiresome. A few moments of humor pop up and Offerman certainly can go on about this and that, but at the end of it, I felt let down.

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, 233 pages
Juvenile Fiction

After he is wrongly convicted of shoe theft in Louis Sachar’s Holes, Stanley  Yelnats is sent to a correctional facility known as Camp Green Lake. At the institution, he, along with dozens of other boys his age, are forced to dig precise holes throughout the barren desert. Meanwhile, Image result for holes louis sacharsomething from Camp Green Lake’s past is tickling the current inhabitants and influencing their lives in ways they could never begin to believe. As Stanely builds relationships with the other boys in the camp and begins to learn about the kinds of cruelty adults can bestow, a clever and quiet plot unfolds in fabulous reveals from chapter to chapter.

Despite being a fairly simple novel in many ways, Holes is quietly powerful with not only an incredibly-planned plot, but also with an unusual level of social commentary woven in through example rather than heavy-handedness. One of the most striking examples of this social commentary is Stanley’s conviction. Sachar makes it clear that had Stanley’s family had more money and more able to afford a competent legal team to represent him, he would not have been unjustifiably sent to Camp Green Lake. Stanley learns even more about social justice issues as he enters the camp, where he interacts with boys of color and begins to understand some of the implications of their lives. One awkward step away from this pattern is a description from the narrator, in which boys who are digging holes are described as being racially ambiguous due to the dirt on their faces.

With two plot lines running alongside each other, separate in history but together in consequence, Sachar handles most of the overlapping well. Though this concept could easily be difficult for younger readers to follow, Sachar’s attention to detail, refusal to overwhelm, and commitment to clear connections makes the structure completely accessible for its target audience. A few places marked as chapter breaks can feel jarring, but the overall effect is worth it and it is this feature that makes Holes so unforgettable.

Of course, how the two primary plots came together did not seem quite so impressive for me this time. I’ve both read the book and seen the film Holes. I recall my first reading being entrancing, so I have hope that my original experience holds up today. But knowing exactly how Stanely’s situation would be impacted by Kissin’ Kate Barlow did take some of the magic away from the book.

Sachar’s narrator speaks in a familiar and conversational style that feels entirely natural and fun. Holes has just about everything you could want in terms of literary value. It’s well-planned, engaging, imaginative, unique, and quite a ride. If you haven’t gotten to Holes yet, take a weekend ad get to it — you’ll thank yourself.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017, 528 pages
Young Adult Historical Fantasy

Sent off on a journey across Europe, young bachelor Monty with his friend Percy and sister Felicity (along with an escort for the three) begin an adventure they could never begin to guess in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Hailed as groundbreaking for its inclusion of a 29283884bisexual male main character and a love interest of color (and a character with a disability), this epic young adult novel touches on many of the successful genres from over the past several years, tied together in a period piece that evokes images of lace and fine brandy.

As an often-lighthearted epic of sorts, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is often fun and rompy. Monty and his companions encounter all sorts of characters as they make their way across Europe and conjure up their own trouble through theft and daring escapes. But each adventure leads to another, leaving the novel feeling a bit long, ultimately, especially as Lee dives into more serious topics such as slavery and homophobia. While both these (and many other challenging topics that are present) are fine and worthy things for literature, their combination with the otherwise explorative and dashing excitement never seems to fit quite right. Instead, these social justice issues come off as heavy-handed and included for the sake of being inclusive. Though certainly intersectionality is important, the handling of it here often makes the plot drag and doesn’t serve the novel well.

Though both Monty and Percy receive a fair bit of development (as do other more secondary and tertiary characters), Monty’s sister Felicity frequently feels like a sort of trope. I’ve since heard that a sequel will follow and develop Felicity further, so I still have hope there, but I was overall disappointed given the attention to other issues in the novel. Felicity’s simplistic stereotype, while perhaps useful for plot purposes, did nothing to improve the cast of characters. Meanwhile, Monty is decidedly unlikable, which was an interesting strategy for this particular novel. Though his selfishness and other undesirable traits are likely rooted in the poor treatment his father passes off to him via  homophobic reasoning, his unlikability and its roots do not make him terribly interesting. Unlikable is always fine for a character if he or she can be made interesting and worth following. The only way to find any sympathy for Monty, aside from how his father treats him, is through Monty’s feelings for Percy. As neither of these things are aspects of his personality and life that he has much control over, it’s difficult to find an entry point to truly cheer for Monty and his success.

Lee has done an incredible amount of research for the finer details in the novel, including various physical artifacts and vocabulary. It is this work that makes the book interesting and, perhaps, worth the time if you’re up for such a tome. With an apparent background in history, Lee makes an impressive amount of work seem easy and seamless.

While The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is, at times, fun and engaging, it was overall too long for my tastes and not up to the hype. Though diversity and inclusion are crucial to modern literature, it was ultimately overbearing here, feeling more like a contest to fit in as much diversity as possible without conscious thought to it. If you enjoy period pieces and don’t mind a bit of slogging through it, you might enjoy The Gentleman’s Guide, but don’t be afraid to put it down if it doesn’t strike you — you won’t miss anything more.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Viking Press, 1962, 214 pages
Fiction

Living with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in a large house in New England as outcasts, Mary Katherine (Merricat) of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is comfortable in her life despite the death of nearly her entire family some six years prior to the events of the novel. When 89724cousin Charles shows up and relentlessly inquires about and comments on the sisters’ financial state, Merricat is reluctant to trust him while Constance is charmed by Charles’s romantic advances. In a story that feels half wrought with horror and half with the stuff of fairy tales, Jackson reveals the creeping underside of the Blackwood family while underscoring the poison that is ostracism.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an enduring work of slow and dripping dread that dawns on the reader as Jackson peels away the layers of the Blackwood family and Merricat as a character. Despite the brevity of the text, the novel provides plenty to dissect. The most interesting of these aspects, I think, is the subtle and fascinating psychological study Jackson does of her characters, which, with the eighteen-year-old as the narrator, focuses on Merricat. Although the novel was published in 1962, Jackson makes incredibly astute observations about mental illnesses we might recognize as something like sociopathy today. Though psychological science had come quite a ways from Freud by this time, Jackson’s sophisticated and subtle depiction of the psyche of the Blackwoods feels years ahead of its time.

Beyond the individual, Jackson also examines society and the psychology of guilt. It’s difficult to discuss this point without giving too much away, but the theme of food returns in a fascinating way again and again throughout the novel, including in instances as a show of repentance. Jackson considers the reason behind the show of guilt and how people feel compelled to seek forgiveness, often, it seems, more for their own sakes and peace of mind rather than for those they’ve done wrong.

All of these philosophies (and certainly there’s far more to digest than what is merely mentioned above) are delivered through Merricat, whose voice is a swift and strong kick in the teeth from the get-go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s iconic opening paragraph is a delicious taste of the originality in the articulation to come and its a pleasure to read and reread Merricat’s thoughts in her distinct style.

And what’s more, is Jackson-as-writer manages layers that Merricat-as-narrator likely does not intend. This allows for a slow, sort of subtle story that heightens the spooky mood and ambiguous supernatural elements. To Merricat, this is just her life, but the very exact way in which Jackson tells the story makes the novel a piece of literature with more than enough to ponder upon for days after the reader finishes the novel.

In fact, a couple of weeks after finishing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’m still thinking about it. It’s not a book I feel I understand completely — and even if I read it several more times, I don’t think I could understand it completely: that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. It is a show of mastering storytelling elements that few can even articulate, let alone implement. We Have Always Lived in the Castle left me hungry for more of Merricat and her family, of the world they lived in, and of gothic horror as a whole. While Jackson only gives us a few short pages to inhabit, the story lives well beyond those pages and opens up a reality for readers who wish to be creepily brushed with horror in the most unsettling and realistic way.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell

When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Alternative Comics, 2003, 128 pages
Graphic Collection

In a collection of short graphic stories called When I’m Old and Other Stories, Gabrielle Bell describes her life and the lives of others with a grungy art style paired with some pretty bizarre text and narratives. Bell explores the idea of imagining herself, as the title suggests, when she is old, as well as a relationship with a grandparent, the effects of alcohol, and more.111263

Throughout When I’m Old and Other Stories, you’ll likely be reminded of a feel of the ‘90’s, though the collection was published in 2003. It features a grungy, sort-of grotesque atmosphere and style that I have always ascribed to what it was like to be a teenager and young adult in the ‘90s (though I only ever got as old as nine in that decade). Though I haven’t seen Daria, I was reminded of the show, albeit in a darker way than I understand Daria to be from what little exposure I’ve had, with each turn of the page. There’s something delightfully disgusting about When I’m Old and Other Stories, and it is perhaps Bell’s absolute rejection of traditional femininity in the work that makes it so.

But this rejection of femininity often felt like a sort of internalized misogyny. The macho sort of attitude her characters carry, particularly combined with these elements of the obscene, the grotesque, the disgusting, makes When I’m Old and Other Stories feel like an outright accusation against feminine women, though there really is no outright statement I saw that actually gets at that point. This, again combined with a vague feeling that Bell is trying to prove herself or make some sort of point — again, something I couldn’t point out specifically in the work, just a general feeling — made the collection a challenge for me.

There is, perhaps, a deeper meaning here that I’m not getting. There may be layers that better define a point that I simply wasn’t willing to work for. But when Bell’s art style is so unremarkable and the text chaotic and, frankly, often seemingly drug-influenced, I didn’t find that I particularly cared. If Bell was not going to put forth an amount of effort I felt appropriate, I was not going to make up the difference. Of course, When I’m Old and Other Stories was published by a micropress — and one named Alternative Comics. It has a zine feel to it, and I suspect that’s by design in some sense. So, perhaps it’s still my failing that I expected more.

One final struggle I encountered: it was never entirely clear to me what in When I’m Old is autobiographical, what is fiction, what is a mix of the two, and so on. The title would suggest all autobiography, but some elements were too fantastical to be real and some stories conflicted in one way or another. Though Bell’s glimpse into the future in “When I’m Old” is likely some sort of autobiography (an interesting question — can we write autobiographies of our futures?), other stories are far less clear, like “Amy Was a Babysitter.” (The Amazon description seems to clear up this confusion, but the autobiographical influence and degree to which it’s present is still unclear.)

The book is a quick read if you, like I, don’t care to dive too much into it and assume Bell is speaking only on the surface here. It somehow feels significant, but it’s not especially entertaining — rather, it’s depressing in places, which is fine but not for me. I’ll reference more work I haven’t personally engaged with but felt tickling the back of my brain as I read this: Broad City and Girls and, perhaps even Portlandia (which I have seen a bit of). I wondered if When I’m Old and Other Stories represented a sort of prototype for these shows, which I imagine to be depictions of women as human. The difference is When I’m Old is far less commercialized, and perhaps, then, more true to its content.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #21, “Read a book published by a micropress,” and I leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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