Review: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

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Photo: Goodreads

Night fell long and cool through the woods about him and spectral quietude set in. As if something were about that crickets and nightbirds held in dread. He went on faster. With full dark he was confused in a swampy forest, floundering through sucking quagmires… in full flight now, the trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.

Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 at the peak of the Southern Gothic literature scene, and is peppered with genre specific tropes McCarthy does so well – grotesque themes, damaged and delusional characters on the outskirts of society, an underlying theme that fate or something just as menacing and inescapable is just out of the field of vision. That lingering maliciousness hovers over Rinthy and Culla Holmes, siblings residing in an isolated cabin in Johnson County, a non distinct town hued in shadow (similar to the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Rinthy bears her brother’s child, suffering through a long labor because he is unwilling to get a midwife, worried she might reveal their insectuous secret. When Rinthy finally rests, Culla takes the baby and leaves it in the woods, telling his sister the child fell ill and died. Rinthy quickly discovers an empty grave and sets off to find a tinker, suspecting her brother has sold the baby because no one else has passed their home in months. Culla leaves too, supposedly to bring Rinthy home, but his aimlessness seems more like an escape from the persecution of his sins.

On their separate paths, Rinthy and Culla encounter different degrees of hospitality. Rinthy’s innocent nature and sickly physique encourage strangers to welcome her with food and shelter, while Culla is met with suspicion, violence, and denied work. Three mysterious men follow Culla for what seems like no reason at all, until we discover this is a story about inhumanity and prophesy, all culminating in a judgement day-like conclusion.

With Outer Dark being McCarthy’s second novel you may expect amateur writing as he figures out his literary limbs, but he was very ambitious (and successful) in the themes he chose to explore in the novel. McCarthy studies the strange behavior of his characters, their dialect, mental instabilities, and ultimately the harm they do to each other, a point illuminated by the tinker when he says he has “seen the meanness of humans till I dont know why God aint put out the sun and gone away.”  The novel also deals in the themes of blindness, darkness, and religion, the title itself referring to a biblical verse “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:30 (KJV) a foreboding to apocalyptic revelations to come, like the rapture itself.

Lyricism compliments broken dialogue, simple people and surroundings, and as the story progresses McCarthy plays with reader’s anticipations. We’re convinced something terrible will happen, so he draws the situation out one string at a time, slowly teasing it apart, growing more deliberate towards later chapters where Rinthy and Culla’s dovetailing  paths draw closer to a similar dire fate; Holmes dealing with death face on, and Rinthy close on the tinker’s heels.

Even with the bleak themes of Southern Gothic, Outer Dark is a tamer version of McCarthy’s usual work, so is a good choice for starting out if you’ve yet to give him a read. Still, in it’s “tamer” nature, there will be moments when you turn away from the page and it’s unpleasant details, but will finish the book with an idea of reading it again.  Cormac McCarthy is not for the faint of heart or ego. If you’re a writer, read this book knowing that you will question everything you’ve ever written as rubbish, but will learn a great deal. My copy of Outer Dark is full of highlights and marginal notes, like any good book should be.

Book six of ten books of summer.

Have you read Outer Dark? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s other books? Can you stomach gruesome subjects in writing or is it a put off/distraction for you? What book do you own with the most highlights or notes?

A little note for #20booksofsummer, I’m currently reading my seventh book, Homegoing (which is great and will have a review up next week), and will be tapping out at that. It’s been great reading some books off of my shelf but I seriously miss lit mags and new books! 🙂

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

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credit: bookcritic.org

It is a bit of a dance we three are in. But there is a better balance when B is here, too. Fen’s demanding, rigid, determined nature weighs heavily on one side of the scale and Bankson’s and my more pliant & adjustable natures on the other, equaling things out… Maybe it’s just we’re both a little in love with Andrew Bankson.

In 1930s New Guinea a young British anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, is on the brink of suicide. Frustrated with several unproductive years of field work studying the Kiona people, a tribe that unceremoniously throws twin newborns in a river out of superstitious ideals, he is overcome with loneliness and dissatisfaction – until he meets famous anthropologist Nell Stone and her husband Fen, a team stagnant in their own research. Although the desire to study the same region, lands, and people should turn them to rivals, the three larger than life egos are revitalized by each other’s company and enter a passionate love triangle filled with intellectual stimulation and dispute, sexual tension, friendship, and learning.

Lily King’s Euphoria is loosely based on the controversial and respected American culture anthropologist, Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), and her time researching along the Sepik River with husband Reo Fortune (Fen) and Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson). King tackles the expectation of factual information involved when writing a story about a prominent figure in history, with exceptional clarity. Like an anthropologist, King studies real events and people to understand the full scope and complexity in the story, and from this knowledge produces a confident and well-researched book. While Euphoria is inspired by real events and people, it is not a retelling or historical fiction. Instead, the novel takes creative liberties resulting in a wonderfully original piece that blurs genres between fiction and nonfiction.

When we first meet Nell she is half blind and weak with malaria, but still curious to take notes and ask questions about everything around her, at the disdain of her husband Fen. He prefers living as a member of the tribe, seldom taking notes and often with a plan of his own. The success of Nell’s previous fieldwork had overshadowed Fen’s career and their marriage. When the couple meet Andrew they take his company as a welcome break from each other, he acts as a buffer between the two and provides a fresh set of ears to bounce ideas off of, and after several years alone, Andrew gladly falls into this role in Nell and Fen’s relationship. Learning Nell Fen’s researching ideas and practices allows Andrew to find renewed interest in his own work and reach a point Nell describes as ‘euphoria’. She means it to be more than intense happiness, for Nell, euphoria is the feeling that comes specifically after months of confusion; meeting a new tribe, trying to assimilate to and learn their culture, documenting without your biases’. Euphoria comes with a sudden breakthrough and acceptance, granted to an anthropologist when they come to understand the subject in which they are studying.

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credit: monoskop.com From left to right: Bateson, Mead, and Fortune. 1933, Sydney.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?

Told through Bankson’s first person narrative and Nell’s fieldnotes, the story’s attention to detail adds a layer of authenticity despite King’s mostly liberal stance in making events in the book not correlate with Mead’s biography. King pulls us through the peaks and pits of Nell, Fen, and Andrew’s excursions and subsequent love triangle while providing technical content on their research, making for an immersive read on occurrences in anthropology during the early 1930s. And although the specifics of Mead’s life may not line up with this story, Euphoria will certainly make you wonder what really went on in her mind during this time of her life, and want to learn more about her.

*one of 10 books of summer

 

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyouLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

If you have heard anything about Celeste Ng’s (that’s pronounces “ing” her twitter and website will have you know!) debut novel Everything I Never Told You this first line is probably it. It’s plastered all over synopsis’ and reviews because Creative Writing 101 tells us the first line of a story is what will attract (or distract) a reader. Seeing Celeste Ng obviously had a good understanding of this I knew I was in for a good time. I picked up a copy from my mum’s bookshelf and quickly read a few paragraphs before pocketing it. My mum now supervises my visits to her study, with good reason.

Everything I Never Told You is about the Lees, a mixed Chinese and Caucasian family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When sixteen year old Lydia Lee disappears and is found drowned a day later, her parents Marilyn and James, older brother Nath, and younger sister Hannah go through the motions as an investigation starts and the events leading up to Lydia’s death are picked through with a fine tooth comb, forcing them to question how well they really knew Lydia. It’s not long before we find that Lydia was an integral part of the family which, without her, starts to fall apart at the seams like a cheap dress coat. The plot goes back and forth in time, through Marilyn and James’ early relationship and marriage, Lydia’s dealings with her school mates and few friends, all revealing secrets long the way. Perspective is switched from one family member to another which adds a closeness to each of their stories, including Lydia. At first this reads like a mystery or thriller but as the story unravels a majority of the focus falls firmly on each family member’s memory of Lydia and what they believe were the events leading to her death, rather than how she died or who is responsible.

As the title suggests, this novel focuses on things left unsaid and the repercussions that linger because of it, which was the main reason I was pulled through the book. I was curious who would find out about someone else’s dirty business, curious who would be left in the dark, curious about what was being left unsaid to us readers. Celeste Ng puts together poetic sentences and knows how to paint a scene with her words, making this book an easy and enjoyable read for me for the most part. But, there is a lot of hand holding through plot assumed too difficult for readers to figure out for themselves, which is unnecessary since those moments were very predictable. There were times I knew I was supposed to think Oh, no way! but would just think Knew it. and want to move on to the next juicy thing happening. This book is very “juicy”. Lots of drama and chaos on the surface, but little meat or real substance when in the thick of it. 

Everything I Never Told You pushed me to ask myself some questions: 1. Can a character be too unlikeable? Yes. 2. When is a character too unlikeable? When I stop caring what happens to him/her. I could not stand Marilyn and James, prime examples of parents who project their fears and shortcomings onto their children (if you’ve seen Trophy Kids on Netflix, ‘nough said). While Lydia is alive they neglect their two other children, Hannah and Nath. Marilyn seems to forget Hannah even exists as she sets the dinner table for four instead of five, and can usually be found helping Lydia with homework or in a daze thinking about her lost dreams of becoming a ‘woman doctor’. A dream long gone after marriage and three kids. When Lydia dies her parents go from neglectful, selfish, and oblivious to emotionally and physically abusing to their two remaining children.

When is a character too unlikeable? When they have literally no redeeming features. The kids are pretty shitty people too, but through no fault of their own.

Relationships and family dynamics are exaggerated to the point that whenever Marilyn talks to Lydia it is always about getting good grades and becoming a doctor. James only sits Lydia down to remind her how great it is to have friends, even boyfriends, and be popular. I know what Celeste Ng is trying to drive home, but it is overstated and at every opportunity. With Marilyn being Caucasian and James being Chinese American in 1970s Ohio race is discussed endlessly throughout the book. A nice perspective to write on, but again was exaggerated at every opportunity. James is self conscious about being one of few Asian people in Ohio. His teaching assistant (also Chinese, go figure) is surprised to see a family photo with him and his gasp white wife (and actually says this). Lydia is James’ favorite child because she looks the whitest.

And there is no way to make that sentence sound any less ridiculous.

James would love to take a wet wash rag to his skin and magically wash away his Asianess and cannot stand the sight of Nath because he’s a spitting image of him in complexion, appearance, and timid personality. He often yells at or hits Nath whenever a little too much of his younger self shows through Nath’s actions or speech.

His not getting a promotion is because he is not white. He has no friends because he is not white. He feels like an outcast in his own family because he is not white.

This is the point their relationships and dialogue became uninteresting and unbelievable and I stopped wondering what happened to Lydia since she was better off dead anyway.

I have never read a story where I ended feeling so conflicted about the framework and the author’s writing. Although I closed the book feeling slightly pleased by the ending I knew I was supposed to be weighed down by the revelations that came to light, but they were lost on me since I had stopped caring. I kept on reading for Celeste Ng’s fluid style and beautiful sentences. And the juicy bits.

What books have you read that left you feeling conflicted? Do you enjoy reading about unlikable characters? When do you think an author can make their character too obnoxious?

Review: An Imperfect Fight From a Bad Feminist

badfeministI started reading the Bad Feminist essays on a whim, trying to fluff up my reading with more literature by women after watching one inspired Chimamanda Adichie interview after another. My bookshelves lack of good female authors is a sad situation. Bad Feminist was eagerly thrust down my throat by book lovers and young women who felt they had found the promise land- the bible to being a feminist, albeit an imperfect one.

Many of these essays were originally published on Roxane’s blog with overwhelming response from followers and hashtaggers, this is where she started calling herself a “bad feminist”. The term started off as tongue in cheek but took on new meaning to define the people that have a passion for feminism but can not overcome the inexplicable urge to bop their heads to songs like the Ying Yang Twins Salt Shaker. Songs with lyrics like Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel hurt, that we all know are terribly degrading to women but are also so damn catchy.

Roxane Gay claims she is a bad feminist because she is human therefore flawed and messy, completely unfit to be put on the proverbial pedestal people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voice” are forced onto only to be knocked off when they displease the media masses. Though it can be argued that this is the position she occupies now despite her arguments to avoid it. But before becoming the Queen of Bad Feminists, in her teens and twenties Roxane disavowed feminism

because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such. When I was called a feminist, during those days, my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs.

And then Roxane Gay became my favorite writer. For a moment, she was going to take these long repeated issues and breathe new farcical life into them.

These essays do more than muse about the life of a feminist with questionable taste in music and a knack for acquiring enemies at competitive scrabble tournaments, the topics span race, gender, sexuality, entertainment, and politics. I enjoyed light hearted chapters like “How To Be Friends With Another Woman” that takes a look at the myths and truths of women’s friendships. Roxane voices her opinions on America’s love affair with slave movies (The Help, Django, 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, et cetera) and Tyler Perry, our permissive attitudes towards athletes who abuse women with such consistency you would think that was the sport they are paid millions to play, the involuntary outing of gay men and women and why we think we have the right to know, and of course, Chris Brown and the bevy of women who fall over themselves in the hopes that maybe, if the world is kind, they can spend a moment in his company – even if that moment is little more than a thorough beating.

Bad Feminist also dives into feminism as a whole, analyzing intersectionality and emphasizing that, shockingly, feminism should benefit more than middle or upper class white heterosexual women, but has failed in doing so. Non white, working class, homosexual and transgender women are often omitted from mainstream feminism and issues that are most advocated for do not represent their needs. In an essay entitled “Girls, Girls, Girls” Roxane focuses on the “diversity” we see in recently successful shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is apparently set in a mythical New York sans black and Puerto Rican people. And Orange Is The New Black which only features minorities as a side plot, a clown act, to Piper’s world. This, Roxane Gay enthuses, “is a fine example of someone writing what she knows and the painful limitations of doing so”, an already underrepresented audience is not being reached.

I liked these essays mostly for the voice they undertook, funny and honest, and although most of what I read was hardly new information, it is clear how Roxane’s life experiences have formed her opinions. But in all her positive attempts to bring about change, Roxane’s carving out a place for feminism to have flaws that conflict with mainstream feminism is reflected in annoying contradictions in her writing.

She urges artists to write beyond what they know but cannot fathom a white writer and director being behind The Help or how Skinny, a story about obesity, could possibly be written by Diana Spechler, a skinny and attractive woman. About Caitlin Moran’s memoir, How To Be A Women, Roxane loses all sense of humor and writes

[Moran] blithely writes, “All women love babies — just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney. Even the ones who wear nothing but sneakers, or are lesbians, and really hate shoes, and George Clooney.” Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue, and to try to generalize about women for the sake of humor dismisses the diversity of women and what we love.

She misses the joke. Roxane Gay bunches women together in similar jokes to advance her writing yet finds it immoral when another writer does the same. She deems shows like Law and Order: SVU irresponsible and unnecessary, using rape as a plot line, but soon after we find out she has watched every episode religiously. How bad is a bad feminist? After a while a bad feminist does not sound like a feminist at all.

One moment in particular bothered me to my core, it was an opportunity for Roxane Gay to “practice what she preached” and give her essays real solidity- propelling them from bloggy YES GIRL! essays to palpable, real actions, but she did not. In her essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” Roxane talks bluntly about the lackadaisical ways in which rape is approached in this era where “rape culture” is a term. She calls on literature to use appropriate language to convey the ramifications of rape rather than using language to “buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of the crime.”

Through the essays there is a lingering, Roxane hints to being gang raped early on by mentioning she had “an incident with some boys in the woods” and eventually reaches the moment where she writes about it. This moment comes directly after “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” essay, so I assumed she would do what she said she would like other writers to do. She did not.

She describes a bike ride with a boy she thought was her boyfriend that takes them to a dirty cabin in the woods. I cringed as I knew what was going to happen next. To her surprise his friends were there when they arrived at the cabin, all “popular” and “handsome”. She asked her not-boyfriend to leave but he would not let her, they pushed her down and took off her clothes. Then Roxane summaries,

They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.

I read this three times over to see if I had missed something. Besides describing the scenery at the time she essentially summed up the event in three short sentences. What were the repercussions? What does “as bad as you might expect” even mean? Can that be considered appropriate language to describe the violence behind rape? Roxane scolds writers for not using the right words to demonstrate the violence of rape, yet describes her own as “as bad as you might expect”. Uh huh…

If I could describe Bad Feminist in one or two sentences I would say it is a discussion piece, one woman’s take on feminism that does not necessarily need to be Essential Feminist Lit. It is an attempt to make a change, but sometimes does not follow through with the risks it calls for others to take.

When I read the book I adored it, why would I not when the meaning behind it is aimed at something so positive? But stepping back and looking at it as a critic there are some obvious flaws with it, but I guess that is what we should expect from someone who calls herself a bad feminist.

Mid-July TBR List: The Overhyped, Marvelous Murakami, and Short Stories

My July reading list has only managed to come together in mid July. Thank you numerous unwarranted trips to the bookstore! Thank you Amazon.com and your lure of infinite books and fast delivery at my fingertips! Because of this I have been finicky over a now large selection of unread books to choose from, starting one until another arrives and I think No, I have to start this one now. But I have finally narrowed it down to three that will fill out the rest of this month.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

I have crawled out from under my rock and left the comfort of hibernation to read The Fault in Our Stars, as hyped as it is. I saw a trailer for the film before hearing about the book and it completely deterred me from wanting any part of it’s YA form. Nor with it’s plot, or with it’s sickly characters and sudden teenage love. But Hollywood has the ability to take a great book and market it to sell regardless of whether it reflects the story accurately. These are usually a re-imagining rather than a strict recreation.

When Hazel’s terminal tumor relents thanks to a medical miracle, she is bought a few more years of life. While at a Cancer Kid Support Group she meets Augustus Waters, a brilliant boy who allows her to see a new side of life, being in love.

I hope the book deals with Hazel’s real feelings about her diagnosis and knowing she is going to die as equally, if not more than, it talks about the Augustus and Hazel’s relationship. I don’t want it to be like The Lovely Bones, where a much greater issue lies within the story but all boils down to Susie wanting to have sex with her crush. I want it to deal with Hazel’s mortality and not have the power of love cure everything. I can not deny the book has something that has everyone raving, and my guess is the plot is great.

I also bought Paper Towns for good measure, but I will save that for next month.

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami

There is a weird level of excitement within me considering I have never read any of Murakami’s work, but I am positive I will enjoy it. His stories are well written and often take the strange of fantasy and science fiction, which are all wonderful in my mind. After reading a few passages across his books I decided to first dip my toes into Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The synopsis is painfully vague, only revealing that amoung a gang of oddball happenings – deranged scientists, unicorn skulls, and Bob Dylan (?) – a man falls into the underworld of contemporary Tokyo, uniting tragedy and comedy.

Murakami’s labeling as a controversial fiction writer and my urge to read international literature more will be soothed by this read!

The Brink, Austin Bunn

I picked up this book for two reasons:

1. Sometimes, I judge books by their covers.

2. I like short stories and enjoy seeing how other writers deal with this form of story telling.

Flipping through to find a passage at random I read of one character being “pleasantly retarded” after too much drink. I put it into my basket because I had read enough. This is Austin Bunn’s book debut and the stories within explore what happens at “the end” (I spot a theme) and beyond that. The stories span a wide range of plots; In “How To Win an Unwinnable War”a summer class on nuclear war somehow leads to the destruction of a family. Videogamers fall in love in the virtual world in “Griefer”. Despite the diversity of these stories all the characters go through changes in their lives and deal with solitude, which I find interesting because right now I am writing a short that deals with this. Something tells me this will be a fun read.

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

thechildrenactHeaving my reading destiny into The Millions Most Anticipated Books list for a second time (the first, Bad Feminist, is a roaring success so far), I decided to give The Children Act a read. I had yet to talk to anyone who had read the book so bought tentatively and set my expectations on average. As a general rule I avoid stories in hospital settings because I can seldom resist the urge to roll my eyes when a steamy doctor starts his residency by flirting with three or four nurses. And I work in a hospital, so twelve hours within it’s walls three days a week is quite enough thank you! But the controversial topic of religion in medical decisions peaked my interests, and I found that Ian McEwan often tackles this on platforms besides his literature- I was excited to find out more.

The Children Act opens with Fiona Maye, a high court judge who rules on cases in the family division, still shaking from an encounter with her husband Jack. She has just been hurtled from the routine predictability of her marriage. Sipping scotch for the first time in years she goes over the argument in her mind; Jack has just announced that at age sixty and after years of marriage he would like permission to have an affair. Yes, permission. Fiona is outraged, disgusted, and betrayed, although Jake feels his honesty should be enough for her not to be. And running through Fiona’s mind are the thoughts most women would have in her position; Had the affair already begun? What had she done to drive him away? Thus begins the end of their marriage as they know it. In this moment between husband and wife Ian McEwan is incredible at demonstrating where and how this relationship is at the point we see it in now. He aids in our ability to be completely empathetic with Fiona, and although Jake is completely wrong, almost with a sense of entitlement, you understand him too.

In the midst of this breakdown Fiona is called in to rule in an urgent case involving seventeen year old Adam who has leukemia and is refusing lifesaving medical treatment because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. His parents, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, support Adam’s decision so Fiona has to determine whether having the freedom to decide his own medical care is both lawful and in Adam’s best interests. A copious amount of questions arise for Fiona when they meet, and although Adam is only three months shy of his eighteenth birthday and clearly aware of what will happen if he does not receive medical treatment, she asks herself whether he truly knows what death means outside of heaven, martyrdom, and what the church elders tell him. Her ruling comes shortly after they meet and instantly results in crucial impacts on both of them.

Although the story is great, I found one of the best aspects of this book not to be the plot or dialogue, but the way Ian McEwan tells it. The language he uses. He is able to convey Fiona’s imperfections and fears, how she deals with a high stress job in the midst of turmoil with forgivable amateurism. I am twenty four, newly married, a college student, with a reasonably low amount of stress but I was projected into Fiona’s mind state for an entire 240 pages, start to finish. I was instantly a childless woman on the cusp of sixty wondering what the hell was going on. In this it seems that not much changes between my age and Fiona’s.

When Fiona finds herself in a grocery store purchasing a meal for one, Ian McEwan drives home the state Fiona feels now that she has entered this state of purgatory.

At the counter she fumbled with her money, spilling coins onto the floor. The nimble Asian lad working at the till trapped them neatly with his foot, and smiled protectively at her as he put the money in her palm. She imagined herself through his eyes as he took in her exhausted look, ignoring or unable to read the tailored cut of her jacket, seeing clearly one of those harmless biddies who lived and ate alone, no longer quite capable, out in the world for too late at night.

I feel your pain, Fiona.

This story is a very quick and easy read with a satisfying ending that will pinch at your heart strings, I must admit I let out a stifled noooo when I reached the end and found what was awaiting some of the characters. I usually give myself a week or two to finish a book and got done with this one in three, but that is purely because I wanted to get through the story and see what would result from this adult mess. Ian McEwan has joined a list of authors I would like to see on my bookshelf again! Finding a new author to join a shelf crammed with bookish buddies gives me an unreasonable case of ‘the feels’, but doesn’t every book lover get this way?

Have you read The Children Act book or have any Ian McEwan recommendations?