we are all completely beside ourselves by karen joy fowler

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a nominee for both the Nebula Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. I can’t remember now where I read it, but this is the first time the same novel has been nominated for both prestigious awards. I got curious (the Nebula Awards focuses on science fiction and fantasy, while I have always assumed the PEN/Faulkner focuses on realist literary work, though I can see that I am mistaken) and immediately went on Amazon to read the sample. You should go ahead and do that. The writing is extraordinary. Two pages in and I was hooked. Chapter 1 shows a couple breaking up and the girl going berserk in a cafeteria. What’s not to like?

The novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, and she starts her story, as she is wont to do, in the middle. It is 1996, she is 22 years old, and she has not seen her brother Lowell in a decade. Her sister Fern has been missing for seventeen years.

I am going to stop here just to say that this is an incredible book, very well-written, heartbreaking, with an important message to tell, and that you should stop reading this post (and the book’s reviews, and the summaries) and read the book instead.

However, if you have read it, or if you don’t mind spoilers, I’ll see you after the cut.

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leningrad by anna reid

Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For nearly 900 days, from 1941 to 1944, Hitler’s troops encircled Leningrad, the former capital of Russia and the symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution, in an effort to starve out its inhabitants. The siege, known as the Leningrad Blockade, forced inhabitants to turn to murder and cannibalism, and starved to death around 750,000 people, or “between one in three and one in four of Leningrad’s immediate pre-siege population.”

It took me a long time to finish this book – not because it was written in a way that discouraged continuous reading, but because the despair and horror depicted in its pages were so difficult to absorb. I feel there is nothing I can say that can be considered an adequate response. I can focus on the language, the craft of it. I can say Anna Reid writes so vividly that the book has the feel and sound of poetry. I can say everyone should read this important historical account. But regarding the stories and diary entries she quotes, to say the siege was “horrible” is a horrible understatement.

I can only share the passages from the final few chapters that struck me:

Statues, landscaping, poetry – nothing can say all that should be said and felt about a tragedy on the scale of Leningrad.

For them the siege is not history but acute, lived experience, and their memories of it, as Olga Grechina puts it, ‘a minefield of the mind. You only have to step on them, and you explode. Everything flies to hell – quiet, comfort, present-day happiness.’

‘All those stories’, [historian Anzhelina Kupaigorodskaya] said, ‘of girls too weak to stand roped to lathes, clutching their dolls – they’re just post-war sentimentality.’ In reality the siege was drab, hard, and horrible. No human being should have to live through such a time…Now that my questions were over this was the important thing, the point she was determined to get across.

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reading update

We got this pack at Shoppers in Ongpin, Manila. It’s nice to drink something warm and tasty while reading. Mmm.

So, what have we been reading?

LocalLocal by Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A collection of twelve interconnected short stories. Every chapter represents one year in the life of protagonist Megan McKeenan, from age 18 to age 30. Beautiful, beautiful stories, and with great art, too. The art truly shines in the quiet frames, particularly in the largely wordless “Polaroid Boyfriend”. My other favorites are “The Last 10 Lonely Days at the Oxford Theater”  and “Megan and Gloria, Apartment 5A”. “Two Brothers” was a violent surprise.

Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the FamilyBatman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read all three volumes, and the third one’s the best, sure to go down in history as one of the most disturbing Joker stories. Scott Snyder’s writing is moving.

 

 

American ElsewhereAmerican Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want to talk a lot more about this book, but I dove into this blind (as I’m wont to do with both books and films), and I would love it if you did the same thing. All you need to know: Mona Bright, ex-cop, inherits a house from a mother who committed suicide when Mona was still a child. The house is in the town of Wink, which was created when a science laboratory was built in the area. The laboratory has been closed for thirty years, and Mona finds Wink an idyllic but strange town. Of course there are secrets. Of course there are strange things that go bump in the dark. I thought it would be a full-on horror novel, but I got something whimsical, and true, and special. Oh, you are in for a treat. If this book were a person I would hug it.

Read it and let’s meet up and talk about it, okay?

I have also read The Ruins by Scott Smith but it wasn’t very good, and 100 Bullets by Brian Azarrello and Eduardo Risso - all 100 issues of it! – which ended up muddy for me, but still an enjoyable read.

the shining girls

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lauren Beukes’s earlier novels – Zoo City and Moxyland – are plot-driven and fast-paced. They are the kind of books you sit down to read in the morning and finish at dawn the next day with bleary eyes and greasy hair because you are too engrossed to stop reading and take a bath.

The Shining Girls, concerning a time-traveling serial killer and a survivor who starts hunting him down, is a slow burn, the kind of book you savor. The writing, the language – the descriptions of places, of emotions, of insight (particularly into victim psychology and how people respond to violence and disruption) – is concise and excellent, and the dialogue, as always, is knife-sharp.

However, unlike Zoo City and Moxyland, novels built like solid, sturdy houses, no piece out of place – Shining Girls has elements that don’t quite fit. The serial killer seems pretty blase about the whole time traveling thing, which I think is the intention of Beukes, to stay away from the stereotypical hysterical guy who ends up in a different time, but his calm acceptance feels strange to me, and the girls he hunts down feel underdeveloped, like they’re nothing more than a name and one other detail (occupation/quirk/sexual orientation/talent/etc). Which is a shame, because one of the important points Beukes raises in the novel is: we often see female victims of violence as nothing more than a name and a pretty face. But because there are so many victims, and the novel isn’t very long (at least, I think, not long enough), that’s all we get of them, a tiny glimpse. Too tiny that I don’t feel that I know them enough to mourn them properly.

Also, after the big reveals are made, the slow burn quickens and the novel starts feeling tedious, just a trail of victims moving toward a predictable conclusion.

But it has its moments, and I still think it’s a worthy read from one of my favorite novelists.

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kritika kultura reading series: fiction

Payment for reading fiction = books. Love it!

I spent Monday afternoon in Ateneo de Manila University reading from my novel and talking about writing stories and my crazy what-ifs.  Thank you thank you Mark Cayanan and Vincenz Serrano for the invite, and thank you to the students who dropped by.

From KK’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KulturaKritika

The high point for me was when students approached me after the reading and said they CANNOT WAIT to read the book and find out what happens next. I think it generated some excitement, and I’m thinking of doing the reading again when the book launches, hopefully next year.

Oh, and the working title of the novel is Dwellers.

Are you ready, ready, ready?