March 5, 2021

February Reading Recap

Last month's reading was mixed, both in styles and in my reactions:

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones: When Lewis and his friends were young men, they went out hunting elk, and everything went wrong. Ten years later, one friend is dead, two still live on the Blackfeet Reservation where they all grew up, and Lewis feels pretty good about the life he's made for himself by getting away. He's happily married, has a good post office job, and rents a nice house that might be... haunted? By an elk he shot ten years ago? As the strange things Lewis is seeing and thinking become increasingly disturbing, his life goes in a short span of time from pretty good to really, really bad.

Wow, this novel is incredible. It is also extremely grisly, with humans, elk, and dogs meeting horrible ends in graphic detail. That I liked the book so much despite the terrible images now in my brain is a testament to Jones's storytelling skills. All the characters were immediately brought to life by natural dialogue and lifelike observations that often provide moments of humor. The plot unfolds through a carefully developed structure and some surprising narrative shifts that all work well to keep up the tension and intrigue. The story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past. Jones has published many previous books, and I look forward to more of his work!

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori: Keiko works in a convenience store. She started at the store the day it opened, 18 years ago, and has never worked anywhere else. She's an excellent worker, devoted to the customers and attuned to the rhythms of the store even when she's away from it. At the convenience store, Keiko understands how to behave, thanks to the detailed worker manual. Anywhere else, she is constantly reminded that the world does not consider her normal and disapproves of an unmarried, childless woman in her thirties still content to work part-time at a convenience store.

Most of this short book focuses on the details of Keiko's thoughts and interactions in and out of the store. I enjoyed this at first and was looking forward to getting a deeper insight into Keiko's perspective, but I didn't find much new as the story went on. Eventually there's a plot development. While it was good to have some change in the story, this arrives pretty late and was mostly frustrating to read about. I liked parts of this novel, but by the end, I was underwhelmed.

THE BOOK OF ESSIE by Meghan MacLean Weir: Years before Essie was born, her father's popular televised church services evolved into a reality show documenting the lives of the pastor's growing family. Or at least, their lives as carefully curated and milked for maximum ratings by Essie's shrewd mother. If teen Essie's pregnancy were exposed, the wholesome family media empire would be destroyed. But Essie has a plan. The first step is manipulating Mother into believing it's her own plan, and the next is enlisting the cooperation of a boy at school she barely knows and a local journalist hungry for a scoop.

The book starts off enjoyably sensational, and a real page turner. But as I kept turning those pages, I grew increasingly frustrated at how long the characters' secrets were being withheld, and increasingly certain that the truth about Essie's pregnancy would put an end to any fun left in the story. Some readers will want to stay away from this book due to subject matter. Others should avoid it for the narrative contrivance of point-of-view characters who keep thinking about their traumas but not specifying them in order to delay the shocking reveals. There are interesting aspects to the novel, especially when it explores celebrity and public perception, but I didn't wind up a fan.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe embraces the risks of writing and deep water: "When I enter the ocean, I have to be present and alert to the dangers around me, and I have to trust in my ability to swim and hold myself afloat. Writing, I find, is similar."

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