The Book of Dreams

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Review #45: Fiction

First to Read #4

The Book of Dreams by Nina George

Book of Dreams

Nina George is one of my absolute favorite authors. I devoured both The Little Paris Bookshop and The Little French Bistro and it was a sincere pleasure to be one of the first to read The Book of Dreams. George has proven to be a master of pulling at readers’ heartstrings.

Henri Skinner is on his way to meet is son, Sam, for the very first time when an accident leaves him hospitalized and in a coma. Sam and Eddie, Henri Skinner’s ex-girlfriend who he has left in charge of his medical decisions but hasn’t seen in over 2 years, visit Henri everyday, trying to convince him to wake up.

Sam is a synesthete, he experiences his senses in a combination of ways. Notably he can see colors in numbers and in voices, he can feel personalities. This is how he knows his father is inside his comatose body, and he believes Henri can hear and understand him. When Sam asks Henri to find Madelyn, a young girl who has also been left in a coma after a car accident in which she lost her entire family, he truly believes her father can bring her back. Sam feels a connection to Madelyn, and believes she and his father are together, wherever they are.

Eddie must grapple with a love for Henri that she thought she’d let go, only to find it returning even more strongly now that she is faced with truly having to decide if she can let Henri go, while Sam confronts the fact that he may never actually meet his father, though his synesthesia may allow him to know his father better than anyone ever could.

In a story told in the shadows between life and death, George weaves together life, loss, love and pain in new and exciting ways, forcing readers to contemplate just what makes a life worth living, what it really means to be alive. There’s a beauty in the way George writes about death and loss, a spark that ignites our curiosity and pulls at the heartstrings leaving us wondering what more there might be to life that we just don’t know. If we can’t see something, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Can medicine and science truly explain everything? The Book of Dreams asks readers to consider all the things we just don’t know about life and death and the in-between spaces. It inspires us to trust our senses and feelings even when logic and reason and the harsh realities of the world would have us do anything but.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

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The Pisces

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Review #42: Fiction

First to Read #1

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

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If you haven’t read Melissa Broder before, you may be shocked (pleasantly or not) by the blunt, crass, in-your-face honesty of her writing. If you’re familiar, you will recognize her voice in The Pisces instantly. Broder is a master at telling it like it is and throwing two middle fingers up at sugarcoating. Just as she has done with her non-fiction writing, Broder leaps into fiction with a reality that is both uncomfortable and refreshing. She refrains from polishing the harsh edges of the world, of people, and doesn’t give in to the fantastical – even in a story involving a merman.

The Pisces, as it turns out, is not about a woman who meets a merman and falls in love. It is instead about a woman who is severely addicted to love and sex and has very destructive intimacy issues. Lucy loses herself in the company of men, she runs from commitment when boredom sets in, then becomes nearly suicidal without a romantic partner. She’s completely self-destructive, feels almost no guilt when her actions negatively affect others, and is constantly using love to rationalize her bad behavior. Lucy enters therapy after a bad break up, while watching her sister’s house and dog in California. Though mostly Lucy silently judges the other women in her group therapy, there are moments when she sees herself in them, and for brief periods of time, realizes she is a mess and actually in need of help. Though another man will come into the picture, or an old one will pop back up, and eventually Lucy loses control and spirals, leaving nothing but ruin in her wake. It is no different when the man is a merman.

One of Broder’s biggest accomplishments with her writing is that she has this ability to make it seem as if she reached inside your head and pulled the words out. It feels so intimate that you want to turn away, give the characters their privacy, but like a car crash, you can’t help but stare. It feels as if Broder has created her characters with pieces of you. Each woman in Lucy’s group therapy, Lucy included, could be you, a version of you. There are fragments of relatability in them. The hard part is that they are not good fragments. It is the hard truths about ourselves that we see in these women, in Lucy, and just like Lucy, we subconsciously judge them for the very things we dislike about ourselves.

Claire and Lucy are arguably the two most destructive and problematic characters, and I found relatable ideas and behaviors in both of them. Ironically, it was these same ideas and behaviors I disliked them for. Lucy and Claire seem to dislike each other for these things as well. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking about how messed up Claire is, but also how she feels as if she is judging herself when judging Claire, and so avoids it. She feels Claire does the same thing. By encouraging and not demonizing Lucy’s behavior, Claire is allowing herself to be just as bad if not worse. They see themselves in each other, just as we see ourselves in them. Broder uses her characters as mirrors, of each other, and of her readers, and probably, herself.

Though the characters are wonderfully crafted and painfully, brilliantly, flawed, the story itself doesn’t feel complete. Lucy fluctuates between destructive behavior and determination to change. She goes from man to man trying to feel better. She slips into states of depression and euphoria. Other women in her group therapy do the exact same; each woman has a break through then a setback then a break through then a setback. Though this is very much how therapy and recovery actually is, perhaps this isn’t the best for the book. The merman is merely another man in the story, another escape for Lucy, another excuse to do unspeakably terrible things. When the book comes to a close, it seems like Lucy may have finally broken her pattern and will turn things around, but we never know. The book ends before we actually see any real progress. And in the end, her (possibly) final straw in letting go of toxic men and toxic routines is caused when Lucy doesn’t feel special enough. She finds out her relationship with the merman is one he’s had with other women before her, and she cannot handle not being special. It’s selfish and childish, and though she leaves that situation claiming to have finally realized she needs to get her life together and has a few ideas about how she can move on, none of it comes to fruition in the book. We have no reason to believe Lucy has really changed. In fact, since Lucy is the only source we have concerning the merman, there’s even the chance he never existed, and Lucy is far sicker than we know.

Broder’s voice is unique and clear and unmistakable in The Pisces. She delivers the kind of uncomfortable characters and situations that reality is made up of. The Pisces feels like an extension of author and reader. However, the story falls flat, it’s very static, slightly predictable, and seems a little like the 200+ page equivalent to walking in place.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

The Merry Spinster

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Review #40: Fiction

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

MerrySpinster

This collection of stories will feel at once familiar and darkly, deliciously fresh.

Though fairytales and fables, these stories carry such a refreshing air of reality. They drip with a dark, sinister unpredictability that flows through our real lives. Ortberg forces the reader to see each retelling and re-imagination through a new lens, one that refocuses the otherworldly and fantastic as real. Remove the preconceived idea that mermaids aren’t real, that animals don’t talk or interact with each other in friendships, or that little boys don’t turn into swans; what do their lives look like? They are as complex and flawed as our own. And they can be similarly heartbreaking and cruel.

With every story, we are given a new glimpse into worlds and situations we thought we already knew. Readers will feel the heart-string tugs of the stories that inspired this collection, nostalgia working to convince us that we know how each story ends. But Ortberg rewrites the script, opening our narrow perceptions to something more – cruel realities of these fairytales we’ve come to love. What may be expected to tarnish the memory of beloved fairytales and fables ultimately elevates them, allowing these stories to grow and mature with the audience.

Ortberg does not shy away from the harsh and unfair or unsavory elements of life, and allows these aspects to shine in this collection. She has given us our favorite stories, with an honest, relatable tone that is unencumbered by preconceived notions of a “happily ever after” ending. We, and our stories, are better for it.

4 out of 5 stars

*Cover image from Amazon

 

Summer House With Swimming Pool

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Review #18: Fiction

Blogging for Books #3

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

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I haven’t read any of Herman Koch’s previous work, but apparently he is known for his unlikable characters, and on this point, his fans won’t be disappointed. I found each character either unremarkable to the point where I didn’t care at all, or unlikable to the point where I wasn’t all that interested in how the story played out for them. I read to find out where Koch was going with this plot, to see how he would tie all the ends together, but for the most part I was not engaged with the characters.

I do enjoy a good unlikable character, but I always feel like at least one needs to be likable enough to keep me rooting for them throughout. Each character in Summer House was either forgettable or reprehensible. Bad things happened to bad people and I guess I just wasn’t concerned with how it all ended, because no matter the consequences, they’d earned it.

That said, Koch clearly knows how to write these characters; he did a wonderful job making each one just horrible enough that you could never really decide which was a worse person than the last. The adults in the novel were awful to each other and the men especially awful to women. I suppose this was all part of creating the unlikable characters, but the blatant misogyny and sexism, though effective, wasn’t my cup of tea. Even the children, save the two youngest, were rude, self-centered, and conniving. Again, it’s clear that Koch is a master of the unlikable character, so if that’s the type of story you gravitate toward, this might be a great read for you.

The story revolves around Dr. Marc Schlosser and his patient and famous actor Ralph Meier. Schlosser runs a general practice and Ralph comes to see him about a lump he’s found. Soon after, Ralph is dead and people begin looking to Schlosser for answers.

We’re given the story from the present, when Ralph’s wife confronts Schlosser at his office, accusing him of murdering her husband. We’re then taken to the previous summer when Schlosser’s family spent time with Ralph’s family at the Meier summer home. Through the events that happen at the summer house, we’re given glimpses into the awful lives the adults are living, and the addition of their children (two girls for the Schlossers and two boys for the Meiers) we see their actions and behavior as even more despicable.

Something happens at the house that turns Schlosser against Meier, though the true facts are kept from him and reader until the end of the book. The meaty part of the story is finding out what really happened at the summer house, what in turn happened to Ralph (and if Schlosser was involved), and what comes next. Though we are finally told what really happened at the summer house, and exactly how Ralph died, we are left without the “what comes next” part. We see Schlosser and what consequences he could be facing for his actions throughout the book, but we never see if he gets what’s coming or not.

I was interested in finding out the truth behind the tragedy at the summer house, and also how Schlosser was connected to Ralph’s death, but I was disconnected a bit. I didn’t care that Ralph was dead because he was such an unlikable character. I was concerned with the truth of the events at the summer house, however, I felt let down when it was finally revealed; it was all a bit lack-luster. And as I also cared very little for Schlosser, not seeing if he had to face the consequences of his actions left something to be desired. I wasn’t looking for a happy ending, I just felt like there wasn’t an ending at all. It felt a bit open-ended. I would have rather known definitively if he got what was coming to him or if he didn’t rather than, perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t.

Regardless, Koch did a great job of making his characters unlikable, though I personally found them therefore be uninteresting and found myself disconnected from the story surrounding them. I like that we start in the present to set the scene and then are taken back to the summer (and given short scenes from even further back to when Schlosser was in med school), then back to the present where we move forward with the characters.

I’ve seen reviews of this book where people say the story is too graphic. I, however, found it appropriately graphic for the most part. Some of the graphic descriptions help depict the awfulness of the characters and their thoughts and actions. This is also an adult novel, so language and graphic visuals shouldn’t really be much of a shock. We’re also dealing with a medical novel. The main character is a general physician and he goes into detail about his work (and what he hates about it) and I found those passages to be necessary for both mood and character building. To this point, I think it’s very much personal preference; I don’t find it overly graphic, though Koch does not sugarcoat anything, so don’t expect that.

In the end, I read to see what happened, but I in no way found myself unable to put it down. It was not a page-turner, it was well-written and seemed well-researched when it came to the medical aspects, and the characters are brilliantly written (if not personally enjoyably). I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.