Giving up

Okay, I can’t do it, I’ve read too many books and not reviewed them and then I can’t remember anything about them. So whatever. I’m doing little bitty ones here. I’m declaring bloggy bankruptcy and giving myself a clean slate. Have to. Here are a series of cranky little reviewlets.

Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi

Liked it a lot! I went to see Helen Oyeyemi talk at McNally Jackson, and she said that writing Mr. Fox was just fun, that she was just enjoying every minute of writing it. It shows when you’re reading the book. Mr. Fox plays with ideas of inspiration and violence against women and writing and imagination and Bluebeard stories. It’s a little weird and confusing but a lot funny and clever. Helen Oyeyemi remains one of my favorite young writers. As before I can’t wait to see what she does next. White Is for Witching remains my favorite of her four books because it involves a haunted house and I love a haunted house.

An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden

Little street urchins try to make a garden in a Blitz-wrecked London. My mother loves this book, and I liked it, certainly, but it was awfully sad. The ending is hopeful, but not quite hopeful enough to make up for how extraordinarily sad it was in the meantime. Maybe upon successive rereadings I will love it better.

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

My coworker said that Lorrie Moore writes the best women characters he’s ever encountered. Better than Alice Walker (he said). Y’all know it’s never a good idea to read a new book in a combative mood. I read A Gate at the Stairs with skeptical eyes but I have to say? I didn’t think the women characters were that great. They didn’t feel real at all, and neither did the men, and the whole thing just, eh, I didn’t like it. I thought it was going to focus more on the experience of being in college, so there was also that expectations gap that’s an enjoyment-killer.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar

Argh. I loved the idea of this book. There are 55 basic chapters and 99 “expendable” chapters. The author says you can read the 55 chapters in order and dispense with the 99, or you can read in an order he suggests that hopscotches between the regular chapters and the expendable ones. The idea is that you’ll have quite a different book if you read straight through, compared to if you jump around. Per usual, experimental fiction loses me by not giving a crap about plot. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it would be if a plot-minded author had done this same thing. If Barbara Vine had done it, say. If the expendable chapters had cast a new light on the events of the regular chapters. That would have been amazing. But that wasn’t what happened. I just got fed up and started wanting to punch the characters, and I couldn’t stop reading because I borrowed the book from a coworker (the one who thinks Lorrie Moore is better than Alice Walker OBVIOUS NONSENSE) and I wanted to be able to say something nice about it when I returned it because I hate it when someone asks to borrow a book from me and I lend them the book in spite of strong inclinations against lending my books and then they give it back without reading it. So I staggered on becoming more and more resentful, and by the second half of the book — which actually was significantly better and more interesting! — I was too fed up to enjoy the good things about the book.

And I hate reading books in translation. Sorry. I just do.

The end! Clean slate! Clean slate going into the New Year. I am going to be awesome at writing posts this year. YOU WILL SEE.

Review: White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

In White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi has done the thing I was afraid she wasn’t going to manage, which is to become EVEN BETTER YET in her third book than she was in her second.  She can’t keep this up much longer, right?  I mean she has to plateau at some point, right?  Helen Oyeyemi!  What will you do to stagger and amaze us next?

White is for Witching is about a set of twins, Eliot and Miranda, who live in a haunted house.  Miranda has pica, and the house hates foreigners.  As the book goes on, we come to realize that there are people in the house apart from those that its inhabitants can see, people that the women of Miranda’s family have sometimes been able to perceive.  Miranda and Eliot go off to Cambridge and South Africa (maybe), respectively, and still they are bound to each other and to the house.  Spookiness ensues.

Simon’s review of this book suggested Helen Oyeyemi might have got too experimental for her boots with this one, which filled me full of fears that she had given up on interesting plots/characters in favor of using too many words in unorganized word salad sentences.  In fact there’s just a hella lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about the sort of evil the house is wreaking, and what all the characters’ true motives are.  Which is the sort of ambiguity I can see why someone would mind it, but I do not, when the book is about a sinister haunted house.  A haunted house is scarier if you can’t lay the ghost.

Another reason I liked it (but someone else might not) is that there are multiple narrators, in varying degrees of reliability (one of them is the house.  You really can’t rely on the house to tell the truth).  I love multiple narrators.  I have done ever since I was in fourth grade and my mother bought me Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends, and I thought it was the coolest idea ever and swiftly went off and wrote a book my own self with multiple narrators.  One of them was a unicorn, and one was a talking book.  And at the end?  The army of men and the army of women all decided to get married, so they didn’t have to have a war after all.  Lesson learned: It is rather lame to pretend like you are going to have to have a Major Event (like a war) at the end of a book, and then for some silly reason not have to have the Major Event after all.  [Thinly veiled subtext: I learned this lesson before I left elementary school, while Stephenie Meyer never learned it at all.]

That unnecessary slighting reference to Stephenie Meyer brought to you by: Embarrassment at my nine-year-old self’s idea of what constituted a good story.

Anyway, multiple narrators.  I am a fan.  If you are not, this may not be the book for you.  Ditto for if you need to be perfectly clear on the spooky haunty happenings and what’s real and what’s not.  Otherwise, hit this up immediately.  It is damn good.  I’m only sad that Helen Oyeyemi has no further books for me to read right now.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Stuck in a Book
Torque Control
Coffee Stained Pages
Fantasy Book Critic
The Indextrious Reader

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Opposite House, Helen Oyeyemi

When I do not expect to enjoy a book all that much, but I need to get it read so I can return it to the library, I leave it in my loo and read it in tiny increments when I am cleaning my teeth and contact lenses, or waiting for the hot water to heat up (my hot water acts like it’s ready to go and then turns from a gush to a trickle; you have to wait SO LONG to get it going properly.  Many lukewarm showers before I figured it out).  If the book turns out better than I expect, I promote it to my bedside table, and read it in larger increments at night before I go to sleep.  If it turns out better than that again, I put it in my large yellow handbag and carry it about with me, so I can read it wherever I go.

The Icarus Girl started life as a bedside table book, but I think it may have been, actually, a teeth-cleaning book.  I expected it would be the same with Oyeyemi’s second book, and I expected her third, about which I have heard great things, to be a bedside table book.  So Mardi Gras I took The Opposite House upstairs with me when I went to clean my teeth after I’d finished my coffee.   In fact it proved to be a handbag book; in fact I took it downstairs and read the whole thing that day.

The Opposite House follows two storylines: Maja, a black Cuban girl whose family fled to London when she was seven, has fallen pregnant with the child she has wanted since she was five years old, but she is struggling with depression and anxiety, what she calls her “personal hysteric”.  On the other side we have Aya, a goddess of Maja’s mother’s religion, who lives in “the somewherehouse” that gives into London and Lagos.

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing has improved practically out of recognition from The Icarus Girl.  Not that The Icarus Girl was poorly written – it wasn’t at all – but The Opposite House has some truly lovely passages, which I will excerpt for you below.  Oyeyemi’s characters are more fully realized too.  Maja’s friend Amy Eleni is a sharp, vivid character, and I missed her whenever she was not around.  Her friendship with Maja, an emotional anchor when Maja is trying to decide what to do, is utterly believable, the strongest part of the book.

I said I might have been being unfair to The Icarus Girl, and I think now I am being unfair in the opposite direction to The Opposite House.  I was so blown away by the improvement in Oyeyemi’s writing that I may be glossing over problems in the plot – the plot did not always work for me, and the connections between the two stories aren’t made clear.  But I am giving The Opposite House four stars anyway, because of the writing being so good.

I wrote this down in my commonplace book:

If you still knew who you were, you had to keep it a secret.  The gods hid among the saints and apostles and nobody perceived them unless they wanted to…A painting of a saint welling holy tears and the story of an Orisha teach you the same thing – if you cry for someone, it counts as prayer.

And this, I really really like too, and would have written it in my commonplace book except it was too long:

Like every girl, I only need to look up and a little to the right of me to see the hysteria that belongs to me, the one that hangs on a hook like an empty jacket and flutters with disappointment that I cannot wear her all the time.  I call her my hysteric, and this personal hysteric of mine is designer made (though I’m not sure who made her), flattering and comfortable, attractive even, if you’re around people who like that sort of thing.  She is not anyone, my hysteric; she is blank, electricity dancing around a filament, singing to kill.  It’s not that there are two Majas; there is only one, but she can disappear into her own tension and may one day never come back.

My second ever boyfriend – frizzy-blond-haired and built like a rugby player – was a postgraduate student five years older than me when I was in my first year.  Luke seemed to prefer my personal hysteric to me.  He told me over and over that I was beautiful, sweet, so clever.

In his mouth, on his tongue, those words were not safe.

And he said these terrible things earnestly enough to make me sit on my hands when I was across from him at dinner.  In his mouth, on his tongue, those words cast a spell which conjured me into the things he kept insisting I was.

Luke was always pleading with me to calm down before I even realized that I was unsettled.  I stopped daring to raise my voice at him, or smile too much, even.  Luke filled bedtime mugs for me, brimful with creamy white, warm Kahlua and milk.  When I sipped them sleepily from the enfoldment of his arms, I became convinced that I was ill, and that it was terminal.  There was no other reason for such care, for the way he laids lands on me so lightly that it seemed I was already disappearing.  One night, drunk, drunk, drunk, I dropped my empty shot glass and a full one for Luke, sat down beside the pieces and arranged them in my skin, twisting clear flowers planted to grow from my soles, my arms.  It hurt.  But wearing my hysteric, it became a matter of art and pain and so on.  It was extreme, it was because of tension.  Luke took me to the emergency room and spoke to me, richly, quietly, held me for as long as he could while I cried and put my sight away from my torn skin.

We went to a girls’ school, Amy Eleni and I.  We know about subtle, slow murder, the ways that glances and silences and unnecessarily kind words can have a girl running into traffic trying to get hit so that she doesn’t have to turn up the next day.  When Amy Eleni arrived at the hospital she was in no mood for pleasantries.  She took Luke aside and told him to “Fuck right off.  Immediately.”

I cannot wait to read White is for Witching!  I am so enjoying watching Helen Oyeyemi develop as a writer (coincidentally, Clare just posted about writers and their development, so I have been thinking about it even more).  Helen Oyeyemi is young!  And has many years in which to write more and more books!  I love young writers!

Have you read this book?  Leave me a link!