Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Homesick for Another World: Stories” by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickHere’s a collection of grotesques if ever there was one.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, Homesick For Another World, presents a series of people who are each alienated and disconnected in their own ways.  Each of them are desperate for some kind of connection with the world or with another person.  The ways they go about forging these connections, however, are weird and damaging and dark.

Only one word comes to mind at first: Grim.  Grim grim grim.  After that comes bleak, I guess.  But there’s also dark humor and a sense of compassion.  The weird, unfulfilled, and misguided characters in these stories aren’t being mocked or gawked at.  Instead, they’re simply presented with all their flaws and desires, with a concise style.

Moshfegh has a real talent for delving into the darkness and coming up with something human.   These stories aren’t always easy to read, but they’re compelling in their strangeness and in their insight.  Each one has an ending or an image or an idea that will sit with you for days.

I loved Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, and you can read my post about it here.  What I said about that book applies to this collection, too: “This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.”

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Wonder Garden” by Lauren Acampora

wonder gardenI found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library.  The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):

 This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury.  Each story focuses on the  various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants.  It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.

The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest.  I was hooked.

It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era.  A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways.  But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity.  And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.

Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another.  To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).

Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great.  These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.

The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.

If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work.  The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House.  As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites.  Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in.  Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt).  I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “American Housewife: Stories” by Helen Ellis

american housewife“Hilarious” and “Demented” are the words which immediately come to mind when I think about Helen Ellis’s collection of stories, American Housewife.  All the tiny obsessions that make up the everyday life of a housewife are illustrated in exaggerated fashion.  The extremes in these stories are blackly funny and insightful, satiric and fun.

The Wainscoting War is a good example of the black humor Ellis uses so well.  It’s also a really great illustration of the way women of a certain class fight, and what they fight over.  The satire is fantastic in the last story in the collection, a tale of what it is to be a writer in the 21st century as well as about Big Brother corporations–My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax.

Like all good humor, Ellis’s stories contain very sharp and pointed commentary about upper-middle-class suburban womanhood, the women that spring to mind when you think “American Housewife” nowadays.  Wealthy ladies who lunch, who go to book clubs and spend a lot of time planning dinner parties.  Those attributes get shaken up a little here.  I loved the Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson-esque darkness and insight of Dead Doormen, about a housewife in a deluxe apartment whose life revolves around housekeeping.   The equally dark and cutting Hello! Welcome to Book Club starts off fun, and then quickly spirals downward as the delightfully twisted monologue of a book club hostess introducing a newbie goes on.

Also included are a couple little gems of lists, like Take It From Cats and What I Do All Day.  Ellis is brilliant at one-liners, every one is a masterpiece. I also think this is one of the very best book covers I’ve seen in a long time.  Perfectly suited to the material.

–Marie

 

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Marie’s Reading: “The Good House” by Ann Leary

good houseHildy Good is one of the top real estate brokers in her small town in Massachusetts.  She’s a respected businesswoman, and her family has lived in town for generations.  She’s even descended from one of the women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, a fact she plays up when showing new folks around town hoping to sell a house.

Hildy is also an alcoholic in recovery, though lately the definition of “recovery” has begun to slip for her.  Though she’ll be the first to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some wine of an evening.  The story of Ann Leary’s The Good House involves Hildy becoming friends with a new woman in town, Rebecca, at the same time that she rekindles a relationship with a man she’s known for years.

The Good House is a dark piece of domestic character-centered fiction.  And it’s not a leisurely story.  There’s lots of drama and it’s very quick-paced.  But Hildy is just so compelling it’s hard to break away.  The descriptive, evocative writing helps to make you feel a connection to Hildy.  The first-person narration helps the connection as well, creating a character that feels real and truthful and sometimes pitiable and unlikable.

At its core this is a story of a woman working through alcoholism, her own angry, private struggle.  She’s lugging around a lot of baggage, and we’re witness to all of her cringe-worthy drunken episodes.  At least, those she can remember.  It’s due to Hildy’s alcoholism that the story takes its dark turn toward the end.

The Good House is also a story of a small New England town, and the way they are changing.  Many people in this area will recognize the gentrification of a beautiful coastal community, and the way townies whose families have lived somewhere for hundreds of years can no longer afford to live in their hometowns.  Hildy’s being a real estate agent was a good choice, in that it lends this extra dimension to the story.  Even though she’s a bred townie, she still cheerfully and competitively sells houses to rich people from away.  There’s a wonderful sense of place and community (both good and bad) in this novel.

Readalike possibilities: Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, though darker and with more of a mystery element, might still appeal to those who enjoyed the darker side of The Good House.  It also shares the small-town New England setting. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs might be a good choice, both for the narrator’s anger, unreliability, and the high drama. Last, Paula Hawkins’   The Girl on the Train could also work, particularly Rachel’s storyline.  There’s more violence and thriller aspects in that one, but it’s still very character- and relationship-centered.

–Marie