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Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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“This disease has magnified all our mistakes. Some stupid thing you did when you were nineteen, the one time you weren’t careful. And it turns out that was the most important day of your life.”

Our first introduction in the book, is to a group of friends, who are all gay attending the funeral of their friend, Nico. The AIDS epidemic has just started but it is at the point where no one had figured out what was going on yet besides just knowing that gay men were dying in droves not long after finding lesions on their bodies. The year is 1986 and the book alternates between 1986 to the early 90’s in Chicago and present day in Paris.

“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.”

In the 1986/90’s part of the book, the story is being told from the point of view of Yale, a director for an art gallery,  who is in a relationship with Charlie. Yale is trying to juggle a lot of things in his life – his relationship with Charlie, who is quite insecure and constantly worries about Yale leaving him, watching his friends die one by one and swirling in a world of fear and morbidity and trying to get the coup of his career by securing a sought after painting from the 1920’s for his gallery.

“Fiona didn’t look satisfied with the answer. But then she hadn’t understood, either, why Yale had put up with Charlie so long. She’d figure it out herself, sooner or later—the way a person could change, and yet you couldn’t let go of your initial conception. How the man who was once perfect for you could become trapped inside a stranger”

The present day narrative is told from the point of view of Fiona, Nico’s younger sister. At the time of his death, Nico’s family had not fully embraced his being gay so Fiona, only 21 took on the responsibility of taking care of him and even gave up college. Being like a  baby sister to all the guys in the group, this also made her the point person as they each got sick. In the present day, Fiona is now in her 50’s, divorced and in Paris, searching for her daughter who she has never got along with and who has just left a cult. While searching for her daughter, she also faces her ghosts from the pasts that she has been carrying all these years.

“But when someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory—letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I had so much love for him, even if it was a complicated love, and where is all that love supposed to go? He was gone, so it couldn’t change, it couldn’t turn to indifference. I was stuck with all that love.”

As morbid as this book sounds, I really enjoyed it. A part of why I enjoy reading is how it exposes you to a life and a world that you would probably never experience. I cannot imagine what it was like living during the AIDS crisis. I truly cannot. I don’t know what it would feel like to constantly being tested, being afraid to be intimate with someone, not knowing if you will catch a disease that no one knows about, being treated like a leper and not even getting the best of care, your leaders doing nothing and remember a lot of these people didn’t have supportive families.

“I’ve been down that road. The thing is, if you stop blaming people and everything’s still crap, the only thing left is to blame the world. And when you blame the whole world, when it seems like the planet doesn’t want you, and if there’s a God, he hates you—that’s worse than hating yourself. It is.”

A lot of the book was about facing demons, facing mortality, facing choices made in life and how your world can be changed in a second. All the different story plots did share the common theme of the importance of preserving a memory. At the end of the day, when we are all dead and gone, we are reduced to just a memory. Sometimes the memory haunts and sometimes it is a pleasant reminder.

“If you had to choose when, in the timeline of the earth, you got to live—wouldn’t you choose the end? You haven’t missed anything, then. You die in 1920, you miss rock and roll. You die in 1600, you miss Mozart. Right? I mean, the horrors pile up, too, but no one wants to die before the end of the story.”

Alternating between timelines can be a tricky thing but Makkai does a great job of handling the two time periods and their stories. I will admit that I really could have done without Yale’s pursuit of the art and Fiona looking for her daughter. I could never quite figure out why her daughter seemed to hate her.

“…even if the world wasn’t always a good place, he reminded himself that he could trust his perceptions now. Things were so often exactly what they seemed to be”

Once again, the premise of the book really makes it seem like a history lesson, but I think you should give it a chance if you can and think more about what could be learned. Like other past grievances that have happened in history, I think this is one that should be remembered. Also, there are many other parts of the book that are fun. Some of my favorite parts are the friendship and dynamics the guys had with each other. The passion they had for their careers. I enjoyed Yale’s introspection on his life given all that was going on around him. And Fiona thinking back on her choices in life. This is a book that had all the hype in 2018 and actually deserved it.

“He said, “Everyone knows how short life is. Fiona and I know it especially. But no one ever talks about how long it is.”

Taynement

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We Chit Chat – Ginger Bread by Helen Oyeyemi

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Leggy: So, Ginger Bread.

Taynement: Umm…so like wtf?

Leggy: lmaoooooo

Taynement: It’s like I know this about Helen Oyeyemi and for some reason I keep thinking this time will be different.

Leggy: This is my first Helen Oyeyemi book and it was an…interesting experience.

Taynement: This is my third book of hers. I couldn’t finish “Boy Snow Bird” and even though I found “Icarius Girl” hella weird, I was still intrigued. But this…this is something else. How do you even pitch this to publishers?

Leggy: I just don’t understand. It was weird but not weird enough to make sense. I wasn’t intrigued. Honestly, I kept reading to see if something would click into place at the end but it was actually literal. There was no metaphor waiting to be revealed. I was confused and unsure what was happening like 70% of the time.

Taynement: It basically lacked focus. I didn’t get why gingerbread was the focus. In the beginning, you think it must have more meaning but you find out, nope, it’s just gingerbread.

Leggy: I actually thought this was going to be a retelling of Hansel and Gretel because of the gingerbread title. Like what Naomi Novik does with her books, where she takes a popular fairy tale and retells it from a very compelling point of view. But this was nothing like that. It didn’t have a point. It was just a rambling and a string of well written words.

Taynement: oooh, that makes sense. I’m actually struggling with what to say about this book. It was a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit. How would you classify this book? As in, what genre?

Leggy: Magical realism?

Taynement: Not fantasy?

Leggy: I don’t think so. it’s super high concept and abstract. Fantasy is in a different world but super grounded in reality still.

Taynement: I mean, I don’t think there’s much left to say except for me, this was not an enjoyable book. There were so many plot points that went through so many different routes. It took you all over the place where you couldn’t even enjoy the journey because you’re spending half the time trying to figure out what is going on. It wasn’t a super long book but it felt really long. I got nothing out of this book and this might just be it for me with this author.

Leggy: This was definitely not for me. I didn’t enjoy anything about this book. There were some glimpses of potential that kept me going but at the end, nothing was realised. I would not recommend. Gave this 1 star on goodreads.

 

Taynement & Leggy

 

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Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney

“Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves.” 

Normal People follows two characters, Connell and Marianne, through adolescence and young adulthood. They meet in secondary school – Connell is working class, popular and the star player on his school’s football team, Marianne is wealthy, weird, quiet and the smartest in her class. After school, Connell comes to pick up his mother from her housekeeping job in Marianne’s house and they hang out and talk which eventually leads to them starting a secret sexual relationship that Connell sabotages when he fears his friends will find out. A year later, they meet again in university and the tables have turned, Marianne is the very popular one while Connell is quiet and becoming quite depressed. Throughout their college years, they circle each other, dating other people, becoming friends with other people, but always being drawn back to each other regardless.

“If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth that grief revealed”

This book is angsty for sure but don’t let that put you off of reading this book. I think the compelling thing about this book is that the relationship between the two individuals seemed painfully real. The characters are very flawed and marred with very unlikable characteristics but you still find yourself rooting for them and hoping they make it out of young adulthood intact. This book shows how a lot of our lives as young adults are fueled by the constant need to perform for other people – our friends, our families, society, teachers, we are constantly inundated with these perfect lives that other people seem to be living especially with the advent of social media.

“There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.” 

This book focuses on only the important days of their lives, often skipping days and months ahead. The author simply presents the realities of their lives without any filters. This book is very humanising, I felt so exhausted after reading this, but i think that is exactly what the author intends to happen, It shows that normal people living normal lives can be quite tiresome. This book lacks quotation marks which made it difficult to follow at first but after a while, I didn’t notice the lack of quotation marks. If you’re going to be bothered by this, I recommend you do it on audio then. Also, the author puts in a lot of effort into developing her two main characters that she forgets to develop the secondary characters. Marianne’s brother and mother are so one dimensionally evil with no reasons to their actions. The author doesn’t give us a background on Marianne’s family at all. We just know that they are emotionally abusive and that’s that on that.

“And he’s attracted to her, he can admit that. After these months away from home, life seems much larger, and his personal dramas less significant. He’s not the same anxious, repressed person he was in school, when his attraction to her felt terrifying, like an oncoming train, and he threw her under it.” 

This book reminds me so much of “One Day” by David Nicholls, so if you liked that one which I did, you’d really enjoy this book. I gave this book 3 stars on goodreads and highly recommend it. Have you read this one? Are you going to? Let us know in the comments!

 

Leggy

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The Book Ratings Struggle

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After my Pachinko review, Leggy made a comment to me that she was surprised I gave it 3 stars considering I gave it a glowing review. It made me sit back and think a bit if I felt that it deserved more than 3 stars.

Now, I know I am not one to give out the 5 stars so generously. I absolutely loved Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and Frederick Backman’s “Us Against You” and yet I did not give them 5 stars. Till today I still fret and wonder whether I should change that and this, my friends is why the thought of rating a book, completely stresses me out.

Majority of the books I read, get a 3 star rating. But within that rating are layers. A 3 star rating to me means that I liked it enough to make it to the end and actually had an enjoyment and appreciation for what it was. For example, The Proposal got 3 stars. So did Pachinko. Both very different books, The Proposal was very cutesy and Pachinko was serious historical stuff. I am not one to think a work of art is better because it is more prestigious, so to speak. My thought process is based on what the book offered, within its space and how it made me feel.

There are some people who constantly give books 5 stars and I am always taken aback like wow, they really love everything they read! It takes a lot to get me revved up and gingered for a book and I think that’s why I am stingy with my 5 stars. The few books I have given the full five to, I remember how giddy they made me feel and I almost feel like a sellout giving it, if I don’t have that feeling.

Leggy once asked if you can rate a book if you never finished it and my answer to that is yes, I think you can. The fact that you couldn’t even get through it is indicative of something. Even though I acknowledge that some books do take a turn for the better. Most recently, I started Sophie Kinsella’s “I Owe You One” and had to stop for my sanity. It was awful. I gladly gave it a one star (sue me).

While writing, plot progression and engagement levels factor in, I think a huge part of my ratings process rests on how a book resonated with me and how it made me feel. I love the idea of Goodreads for a book reader but man, the ratings part stresses me out. Just the question, “What would you rate it?” breaks me out in internal hives.

How about you? What is your ratings process? Are you a generous rater?

Taynement

 

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Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

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“They died, he wrote, as if overcome by sleep – or, according to a second translation: as if drowned in a dream.” 

In a college town in California, a girl comes home from a party, stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep and remains asleep. Then it happens to another girl, then a guy and suddenly, they realise that this is an epidemic and panic spreads to the rest of the town and then the country. This is a virus they’ve never seen before and it’s airborne. The disease spreads from 10 to 20 to 100 and then to 750  people. Everyone is asleep, dreaming, eyes fluttering while the people awake struggle to keep them hydrated and prevent bed sores. The whole town is quarantined, soldiers are placed at every exit, the National Guard is called in, and scientists from all over the world are flown in.

“The boys turn quiet and they drink even more – cheap beer bought with fake IDs. They keep their hands in their pockets those first few days and just try to stay out of the way of the girls. It is as if the boys can sense it, even in those girls, in their easy closeness and their interlocking arms: the whole history of women and suffering, the generations of practice at grief.” 

But this book is not about the disease, it’s about human nature. How we deal with things differently and what binds us together. We have Mei, a college freshman whose roommate is Patient Zero and who has been having a hard time connecting with other students and navigating dorm life. We have new parents – Ben and Alice who just moved to town to teach, trying to protect their newborn and each other. A father who succumbs to the disease early, leaving his two young daughters to fend for themselves. A psychiatrist, leaving her young child in Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams.

“When one’s life seems broken beyond repair, there remains one last move: a person can at least shut her eyes.” 

This book is incredibly well written. The author’s writing style reminds me of Fredrick Backman’s style. So if you enjoy him you would probably like this. If you also enjoyed Station Eleven then this is exactly the book for you because it is literary fiction disguised as science fiction. As mentioned earlier, the book is not about this virus that is never named, it’s not about the science behind it or where it came from. It’s about how humans react to it. If you need your books tied up in a bow, this is not the book for you.

“The only way to tell some stories is with the oldest, most familiar words: this here, this is the breaking of a heart.”

The scenes of people trying desperately to leave town to find their loved ones, parents who live in other towns desperate to get to their children trapped inside the now quarantined town. The virus is airborne and extremely contagious so there are so many moral dilemmas to grapple with – should you help people who might be infected? Should you help the people you know first or the most vulnerable? There are different answers to these questions that different readers are going to have different reactions to. The fear is palpable, you get to know your handful of main characters and you’re scared for them. Are they going to get it? Are their loved ones going to survive?

And then, in a surprise twist, someone wakes up.

I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads and I highly recommend it.

Leggy.

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Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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“The stories of Koreans in Japan should be told somehow when so much of their lives had been despised, denied, and erased” 

The book started with a couple who kept losing child after child until one survived. Except he was crippled. The village matchmaker was able to find him a wife but he passed away young, leaving behind his wife and teenage daughter who both ran a hostel. Sunja, the daughter is our protagonist and by the 1900’s she falls for an older man who gets her pregnant. He tells her he can’t marry her because he has a wife and kids back home in Japan but he can take care of her financially and come visit her in Korea. Sunja refuses to be a kept woman and rejects him.

One of the hostel guests, a principled sickly pastor, Isak takes it upon himself to marry Sunja and raise her child like his. They move to his hometown in Japan and join his brother and his wife, Yoseb and Kyunghee and become a family. The birth of Sunja’s son, Noa is the beginning of this fascinating, multi faceted, multi generational story.

I am already a sucker for Asian stories and for multi-generational stories. Put them together and you have me sold. This was a very well thought out book. Every character was well rounded and felt like a real life person. The book can be categorized as historical fiction because you get to learn a lot about the war and how Koreans were treated awfully, how they suffered just trying to make ends meet and how they were discriminated against.

“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves”

I particularly liked how realistic this book was. It covered a whole lot of life experiences as we moved from one generation to another. I was particularly struck by Sunja because by all accounts she lived a hard life but just always tried to make the best of it. Probably because it was what she was groomed to expect. I kept holding out hope that she would have a happy ending but just like life, things kept on happening and Sunja kept on surviving. The book covers infertility, starvation, homosexuality, discrimination, infidelity, sacrifice, family, death and a whole host of other topics.

“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

The discrimination was such a hard thing to digest because its never fun seeing people struggle. But it was a reminder of how unfair the world is and how even when you are at your worst point, life still goes on. Any group of marginalized people could relate to the Koreans trying to fit in in Japan, when no matter what they did, they were not accepted and just seen as bottom of the barrel.

The title of this book exemplifies how well crafted and clever this book is, because while a few of the characters worked in Pachinko parlors, the connection to the title was more symbolic. We find that Pachinko is a sort of game that could be conflated as gambling. There were loads of Pachinko parlors in Japan and even though there was a chance the odds may be fixed and whoever was playing would more than likely lose, people still kept on coming back with the hopes of winning. This hope was parallel to the Korean characters trying to build a life in Japan

Story is that it took the author 25 years to write this book. It’s a good thing that all the time and effort put into the book showed, but it also became a bit lengthy. After a while, I began to think it was time to wrap it up. Overall, if you are looking for a book that will transport you to another world, while also making you feel like you are learning something, this is the book that will do just that.

Taynement

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Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient

“You become increasingly comfortable with madness – and not just the madness of others, but your own. We’re all crazy, I believe, just in different ways.” 

One evening, Alicia Berenson shoots her husband in the face 5 times and then never speaks another word. Theo Faber followed the case in the media closely and being a criminal psychologist becomes obsessed with her and the case. He is determined to help Alicia Berenson talk and discover the real mystery surrounding that night and how a perfectly happy seeming couple came to that end. Theo applies for a job at the facility where Alicia is being held on grounds of insanity and his search for the truth leads us and him down a rabbit hole that threatens to consume him.

“As you will see, it’s an incredible story—of that there is no doubt. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.”

I can see why this book is receiving all the hype that it is. First of all, the premise is incredible and makes you want to pick up this book. Secondly, It is really difficult to put down once you start. I don’t think this book is fast paced but I do think it’s very compelling. This book is narrated in first person by Theo and he is such a compelling and incredibly unreliable narrator. This is the only psychological thriller that I have heard compared to Gone Girl that I can see why. This book starts off as your standard mystery book, you’re fascinated by Alicia, you too want to know why she hasn’t spoken since the night she allegedly took her husband’s life. Not to her lawyers, not her psychologists, not at the trial, not to proclaim her innocence or guilt, Alicia Berenson has never said a word since that night. As Theo digs further into that night, more and more suspects other than Alicia emerge, and you always think you’ve got it figured out but I promise you, you don’t.

“At the time I didn’t understand. But that’s how therapy works. A patient delegates his unacceptable feelings to his therapist; and she holds everything he is afraid to feel, and feels it for him. Then, ever so slowly, she feeds his feelings back to him.”

I personally didn’t see the answer to the mystery coming until almost 75% into the book and even then, I just had my suspicions, I never fully figured it out until the book was almost done. I can’t give you more than this because obviously, this book depends on the big twist, and I don’t want to say anything that’ll spoil that. This book was very well written, I was incredibly delighted by the language and the level of research that went into this book. This book is a slow burn that builds into an explosion. I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Gave it 3 stars on goodreads.

 

Leggy