Book Review: “Winter in the Blood” by James Welch

515zmsfedblI hated this book the first time I read it. It was slow and bleak and nothing about it really hooked me like it should have. However, a midterm I was about to take was going to have Winter in the Blood on it, and I forced myself to re-read for the sake of a good read. I’m so glad I did because my opinion completely reversed upon that second attempt.

Winter in the Blood is about a genuinely unlikable (and unnamed) protagonist living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. He’s highly self-destructive tendencies mostly stem from witnessing the death of his brother, which he blames himself for. It’s hard to say what the plot is, and it’s not even a redemptive arc because he only starts on that path in the last moments of the novel. I guess it’s a character study and a meditation on reservation life . . . ? I realize this sounds really stale and not appealing at all, and I’m sure my professor Billy would be annoyed if he read this. But I promise, James Welch infuses just enough dark humor and poignancy in the book that it makes for a thought-provoking and genuinely enjoyable read. Another reason I love this book is because it makes you care about a really unlikable guy. While he’s violent and disrespectful, he is also clearly living with an enormous amount of agony and guilt. When I read about how he kept his brothers things around and visited the spot where his father died, it became clear that he was deliberately haunting himself about his past. I couldn’t help but empathize with him, and I found myself rooting for him.

This book was my first foray into Native American literature and I would argue that it’s required reading for those interested in the canon.

5/5

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Book Review: “The Emigrants” by W.G. Sebald

76507In a way, The Emigrants is slightly obnoxious. As with most of Sebald’s work (or so I’ve been told), the text is filled with photographs of places or people or things that can somehow be related to the plot. It’s not a narrative technique I’ve encountered before, but I’m good to never experience it again if I don’t have to. I like using my imagination when I read, and it feels kind of patronizing to suggest that the reader needs visual cues. I understand that photographs are poignant for underlining the theme of memory in the novel, but there were too many of them that didn’t have any discernible connection to the plot.

Like with so many other books, I appreciated the book’s meditation on trauma and lost memory. Apparently, Sebald’s father was a Nazi officer who never spoke about the things he did or saw during the war. You get the sense as your reading The Emigrants that Sebald is trying to uncover those memories of World War II which were denied to him by his father. The whole book revolves around the narrator collecting the memories of four German emigrants who are simply perplexed at their own survival. Their pain is carefully illustrated with respectful amounts of curiosity and compassion on the part of Sebald.

The Emigrants is a good book but not one I necessarily look back on with fondness. I honestly like a lot of books that are really depressing because sad things can make for a beautiful or thought provoking read. This book isn’t really one of them because it doesn’t leave you with anything other than pity for a few fictional characters. A non-fiction examination of real-life emigrants would be way more compelling and it probably would leave you with that lasting effect this novel should have had. This book was very well received upon its publication and for many other readers, I can see it being a hit. However, this one just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 2.5/5

Book Review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

6334I’m starting to realize that I only really enjoy dystopian books when the narrative takes place in a world that’s somewhat recognizable (i.e. The Handmaid’s Tale). Never Let Me Go takes place in a world that’s just different enough from our own. There aren’t robots or thought police or anything like that, thankfully. The first part of the book shows us a bunch of human kids at a boarding school that makes sure the children stay healthy. At that point, the reader can see Hailsham and think it’s no different than a school you might find somewhere in the real world. By dropping hints over the course of the book, Ishiguro quietly peels back the layers of what is recognizable and gives us the dystopia, where certain humans are raised only so that their organs may be harvested. They’re so dehumanized that instead of dying, they “complete”, as if they were machines. It’s scary to imagine a world where such a thing would be considered acceptable. Miss Emily suggests that most people try to ignore the existence and purpose of the clones, and I guess that makes sense if such a thing happened in the real world. It’s almost like how we go to buy nice clothes at J. Crew while knowing it’s all made in inhuman labor conditions. You just try not to think about it. It’s said that Hailsham was founded to show that clones deserved humane treatment, but I would bet it’s real purpose was soothing consciences.

My favorite aspect of the book is how patient Ishiguro is in his revealing of the dystopia. He waits for the reader to get comfortable in the identifiable setting and instead of just pulling the curtain back on it all at once, he drops clues for the reader to pick up. The developing revelation feels very natural because we are first reading it from the perspective of children, who have no reason to question their surroundings until someone gives us a reason to. Miss Lucy performs this function within the narrative while Ishiguro does it for the reader. It’s a fascinating method of storytelling that I would love to encounter more often. It’s not easy to piece together a whole dystopia, but the writing is so compelling that it makes you want to do it.

This book is devastating in its reminder that death is inevitable for us all, though we push it to the back of our minds in order to survive. We don’t like to think about it, but it’s also our fate to experience the deaths of those we love, as with Kathy and Tommy. The story belongs to the characters just as much as it does to the reader, and I have to commend Ishiguro for the gentleness with which he makes this suggestion. I think a lot of writers want to approach issues of mortality with a Hemingway-esque mindset, reminding us to be brave and as fearless as possible in the face of it all. That’s why I appreciate Ishiguro’s reminder that death doesn’t have to be anything at all, since it just isNever Let Me Go beautifully handles the difficult and elusive concept of death, and acting almost as a parable for its readers.

All in all, I highly recommend this astoundingly beautiful book. Remember to keep tissues with you towards the end.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “Winter in the Blood” by James Welch

515zmsfedblI hated this book the first time I read it. It was slow and bleak and nothing about it really hooked me like it should have. However, a midterm I was about to take was going to have Winter in the Blood on it, and I forced myself to re-read for the sake of a good read. I’m so glad I did because my opinion completely reversed upon that second attempt.

Winter in the Blood is about a genuinely unlikable (and unnamed) protagonist living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. He’s highly self-destructive tendencies mostly stem from witnessing the death of his brother, which he blames himself for. It’s hard to say what the plot is, and it’s not even a redemptive arc because he only starts on that path in the last moments of the novel. I guess it’s a character study and a meditation on reservation life . . . ? I realize this sounds really stale and not appealing at all, and I’m sure my professor Billy would be annoyed if he read this. But I promise, James Welch infuses just enough dark humor and poignancy in the book that it makes for a thought-provoking and genuinely enjoyable read. Another reason I love this book is because it makes you care about a really unlikable guy. While he’s violent and disrespectful, he is also clearly living with an enormous amount of agony and guilt. When I read about how he kept his brothers things around and visited the spot where his father died, it became clear that he was deliberately haunting himself about his past. I couldn’t help but empathize with him, and I found myself rooting for him.

This book was my first foray into Native American literature and I would argue that it’s required reading for those interested in the canon.

Rating: 9/10

First Impression: Ernest Hemingway

1455.jpgTo put it briefly, my relationship with Hemingway has evolved from serious dislike to begrudging respect to utter obsession. My first experience of Hemingway was reading “Hills Like White Elephants” in an American literary and visual culture class (my high school had DOPE courses, guys). I enjoyed the piece immensely, probably because I’d never seen anything written like it before, but I think the assignment following the reading was so hard that it utterly destroyed my initial opinion of him. Re-writing a fairy tale in the style of Hemingway is no easy business, especially since I’m not really a creative writer. It’s also a really ambitious project when you’ve only read a single piece of his work. While “Hills Like White Elephants” is one of the best and most boiled down examples of Hemingway’s style, it wasn’t enough to make me understand who he was or how he wrote. For a long time, I blamed Hemingway himself for my mediocre performance on the assignment and I avoided reading his work for an embarrassingly long time.

Sometime in my junior year of college, I bumped into “Indian Camp”, another Hemingway short story. It was only a few pages long and I thought, fuck it, I’ll give it a shot. I had to admit that it was impressive from the start, since the simplicity of the prose worked so well with the perspective of a young boy. The moment that finally floored me was when I read, “[The Indian’s] throat had been cut from ear to ear”. Ho. Ly. Shit. I couldn’t believe the dad had killed himself, just like that. The whole story had been violent in its description of the caesarean section, but that moment took the violence to a whole new level of potency. It was the blunt description of the moment and its aftermath that intrigued me the most. In that moment, I had to begrudgingly admit that Hemingway had done something genius.

The full-on obsession phase began and ended with the 24-hour period in which I devoured A Farewell to Arms. By the last chapter, Hemingway had absolutely shattered every emotion I had and according to my concerned roommate, I was “shaking like a shitting dog” (true story). I hated myself for hating Hemingway for so long, since I let a stupid and unfair grudge get in the way of reading a great book. Looking back, though, I would imagine a lot of people dislike Hemingway when they first read him and perhaps avoid him like I once did. His subject matter is not necessarily fun and it is definitely not easy to read at first. Still, I’m relieved that I eventually grew enough as a reader to be able to appreciate Hemingway as a writer and cultural icon. After all, I would not have an award-nominated thesis if it weren’t for him. Love ya Papa.

Review: “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson

220px-MiracleWorkerPosterI really enjoy reading plays, but I firmly believe (with some exceptions) that most plays are better experienced as performances. While I enjoyed\, reading it was more of a challenge than I’ve had with other plays. For one thing, the play is highly physical and almost a little violent, making much of what you read stage directions. In one section, the directions went on for so long that I felt lost in what I was supposed to be imagining versus what was actually on the page. Looking back, youtube would have been a good solution to that little issue. Though I was moved by the development of Helen and Annie’s relationship and was touched by the final scene, I didn’t feel very connected to it because I had struggled so much with reading the action in the stage directions. It felt like because I wasn’t able to really witness Helen’s development, I didn’t feel the way I was supposed to feel when she has the breakthrough at the water pump.

Furthermore, I thought the weird flashbacks with Annie’s brother were unnecessary to the plot. I think because it was so easy to see Helen’s struggles, Gibson felt he needed to include some for Annie so we could root for her just as much. The thing is that Annie was already really interesting without knowing anything about her past, and I didn’t need flashbacks with her brother to feel more in touch with her.

All in all, it’s a good story and truly moving, but I think it has to be a better one on stage. And on that note, bless those actresses who take on all that physical acting.

Review: “Elsie’s Business” by Frances Washburn

31lPN7Oi8tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One of the most immediately appealing things about Elsie’s Businessis the fact that it’s written like a crime thriller. I remember being up half the night trying to finish it because I couldn’t stand the thought of not knowing who Elsie’s killer was. In this way, the book operated like any other crime novel I had read before. But there is something really important about Frances Washburn’s book that makes it very, very different from other books in this genre. . .

Elsie’s Business begins with an account of the brutal rape and beating of the titular character, who is then left for dead on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation. After she recovers, she is taken in by Catholic friends in a small town outside of the reservation where she works as a housekeeper. Throughout the book, people thrust various assumptions onto Elsie because of her status as a rape victim (not survivor, in their eyes), a Native American, and a woman. She is also subjected to sexual advances and further attempted assaults by the men in the town, including the ones whose houses she cleans. It is clear throughout the book that there is no safe space for Elsie, neither on the reservation nor off it. Hunting imagery is used throughout the book, underscoring the relentless stream of abuse thrown at Elsie which eventually culminates in her murder.

There’s a very important reason why Washburn wrote this book. More than anything, Elsie’s Business is about the perpetual dehumanization that Native American women are faced with each day. Elsie may be a fictional character, but her story is very much a reality. Reservations see a rate of sexual violence as much as twelve times the national rate. Native women are also ten times more likely to be murdered than non-Natives. The number of women who go missing each year is still undetermined, although “it happens all the time in Indian country” (see links). I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about this epidemic until I read Elsie’s Business, but that’s why the book is so important: it draws the reader’s attention to a very serious issue that they might not have otherwise known about.Washburn graphically illustrates the most horrific assaults I’ve ever seen in literature because she wants us to know the degree of violence Native American women experience on a regular basis. This book will rightfully haunt me for a very long time and that haunting will always inspire me to educate and inform others about this unspoken but very real issue.

Rating: 4.5/5

Why Native American women still have the highest rates of rape and assault
For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape, Rare Justice
 Missing and Murdered: No One Knows How Many Native Women Have Disappeare

Review: “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy

a035d962c268a2f73cd7cad8eda0ee75I read this book in AP English lit when I was a senior in high school and no matter what you tell me its literary merits are, it’s one of the most obnoxiously depressing books you’ll ever read. Thomas Hardy does this a lot, which you’ll know if you’ve read Jude the Obscure and (like me) had an epic wtf moment at that part I won’t say but you know I’m talking about. Back to Tess, I get that it’s all about how bad industrialization is and how modernism is a problem, but REALLY? You have to have THAT many bad things happen to a single person?

I can’t talk about this book without giving some spoilers, so don’t hate me for doing so, but this is also my reading journal so I reserve the right to talk about what I feel is important, even if its a giveaway (see my “about” page). For Tess, I feel that it’s important to note that not only is this poor girl raped by the guy she’s working for, she gets pregnant, the baby dies, and because Thomas Hardy is a total freak, the baby is literally named “Sorrow”. I’m not fucking kidding either. This guy writes the most pessimistic books and then sprinkles spare melancholia on them. Not only that, Tess finally meets a nice guy, but then he turns out to be a totally holier-than-thou jerk who deserts her because she’s not a virgin (because, you know, it was her fault). Oh and then she’s HANGED in the end. This book is the ultimate downward spiral, both in narrative and your mood as you read it.

Like I said, I get that people think it’s really important in its literary elements and I honestly think it has some good points about how we don’t respect nature in a modern age. But . . . like . . . can we make that point without making the reader want to kill themselves? Maybe? . . . Please?

Rating: 2.5/5

Review: “La Vie d’Adèle” (“Blue is the Warmest Color”) by Julie Maroh

3070311-le-bleu-est-une-couleur-chaude-2I had seen the movie before I bought this graphic novel and, honestly, I was bored. I love French cinema, I think international films are important to experience, and I know this movie got big honors at Cannes. But I thought it was dull, even with those “sensational” 10-minute long sex scenes that all of the reviewers talked about. Simulated lesbian sex doesn’t make a movie good, though plenty of critics implied otherwise. Anyway, despite being let down by a movie I thought would be interesting, I still had faith that it would be an interesting book. As we all know, books are quite often better than their film adaptations, so what was to stop me from trying to see this story in a stronger medium?

Regrettably, I discovered that I had wasted my money on a story that STILL wasn’t interesting, even in its original form. Better than the movie (literally anything could be), but still not very good. I just didn’t like the characters very much and it was hard for me to empathize with them, even when they were going through hell and back. I also thought the ending was terribly cliché as it ended up like so many other unremarkable romantic tragedies: someone dies and their death is inspires their grieving partner to hashtag YOLO. Cry all you want at the doomed lovers’ tragedy, I’m just saying that it’s a really boring message to leave a reader with.

I do give La Vie d’Adèle a lot of credit for giving me some more insight into what it can be like to discover one’s own homosexuality. I think it’s important to bear witness to stories in which sexuality is explored at length, and the best example I can think of is the musical Spring Awakening, which is about all different kinds of sexual orientations, experiences, and practices. But while I believe art about sexuality is important, I do not believe it automatically makes art praiseworthy, which goes back to how critics of the movie only talked about the sex scenes. In the case of the book, I just don’t believe that the story, no matter how provocative, was strong enough to merit a movie adaptation, let alone positive reviews. This is one of those reviews where I know people will disagree (which is great, because I’m sure a book about a young lesbian would be really relatable to others), but I’m not going to engage with people who try to start heated debates about it because to me, the book isn’t worthy of such discussions. I simply didn’t like it, and hopefully even the bookworm-trolls who stalk literature blogs can accept my opinion.

Rating: 1/5