Reading Resolution: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

23. A 2017-2018 New York Times bestseller: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

List Progress: 21/25

Sharp Objects is entertaining. Its prose moves quickly, its very immersive into the lead character, and the imagery is very evocative. Sharp Objects is also very brutal towards female characters, obscene in its depiction of youthful sexuality, and depending on how you read it, quite sexist. It is a very entertaining book and I enjoyed reading it, and I am left wondering what that says about me.

Sharp Objects is the 2006 debut novel by Gillian Flynn, who made it big with Gone Girl in 2012. It was recently developed for a HBO mini-series starring Amy Adams, and any discussion of my reading the book has to be prefaced with the fact that I watched the entire series before picking up the novel. (I will try to keep this from being a “who did it better?” review.) Going in knowing all of the major events and twists, I had a slightly backwards approach to a mystery story, but I like to think it helped me analyze how the story itself holds up under scrutiny. Not that the plot is really the point (no pun intended).

The story follows Camille Preaker, a reporter who is sent from Chicago back to her small hometown in Missouri to cover a series of brutal murders of young girls. She has to sort out the facts of the case while dealing with her passive-aggressive Southern belle mother, her passive stepfather, and her hellion thirteen year old half-sister, as well as flirting with the big city cop sent down to work on the case. Camille’s backstory is a grab-bag of traumas and pretty much any trigger warning out there should be applied to this book. It is not for the faint of heart and earns the title “pulpy” in every sense of the word.

Through the eyes of this damaged female protagonist, and written by a female author, the story could perhaps be considered a deconstruction of stories about violence against women, about how much our fiction and our news cycle love Pretty Dead Girls. But I’m not sure if it is or not. Camille undoubtedly has a great deal of internalized misogyny, and I can’t quite decide if that is an intentional trait written into the character or a trait that Flynn herself shares. To paraphrase a line from Slings & Arrows, it feels more like something that shows us brutality, rather than teaches us about brutality. But it also shows us the ripples of that brutality, so maybe it is worthwhile as a message? I don’t know if I can say.

The mini-series tones down a lot of the stories uglier traits, smoothes it into more of a police procedural mold, and is better at some aspects of the story but much worse at others. The book is grosser, but in a way that feels very (again, no pun intended) pointed. The book wants you to be disgusted by the factory hog farm, but the redneck teenagers, by the promiscuous thirteen year old. Even if just through the necessity of casting an older actress to play the half-sister, the show cleans up some of the grossness, and possibly in the process, normalizes it.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was entertaining.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. Trigger warnings for murder, rape, self-harm, underage sex, torture.

Reading Resolution: “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

8. A book written in Europe/Russia: 
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

List Progress: 20/25

Suddenly, through no fault of your own, everyone in your family finds you disgusting. You didn’t do anything to become disgusting, you just woke up this way and there’s no way to go back. You are not only a huge burden to them, but they can’t stand to be in the same room with you because of what you’ve become. Beneath the surreal imagery, this is what The Metamorphosis, the 1915 novella by Franz Kafka, is all about to me. It seems that academics have thrown up every interpretation in the world to explain this story, but at its core, The Metamorphosis is about what it is like to feel utterly, completely repulsive. It is not an easy novella to read, but that central concept sure hit home for me.

I have never read any Kafka before, but was familiar with the central conceit of the story: that a young man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning having been transformed into a giant bug. I don’t know if I was picturing some sort of adventure to turn him back, or a quest to figure out why this happened, or a journey to find a new life where he could fit as a giant bug. Whatever it was, I wasn’t picturing a slow, tragic meditation on how his loved ones saw him. Gregor’s central problem is not that he is a giant insect, but how his loved ones see that insect. They are afraid, disgusted, angered, frustrated, perversely intrigued, and annoyed by the new Gregor, but no reactions that would help Gregor to feel less alienated and alone. He has provided for his family for his entire adult life, but as soon as he is no longer useful, they lose all affection for him. His sister tries for a while, but in time not even she can find it in herself to love this bug.

The Metamorphosis reads as a very, very pessimistic view of what it is to live with a mental or physical disability, anything that would make the rest of the world look on you with disgust. As someone with my own history of mental illness, there were definitely uncomfortable moments reading this, as an absolute worst case scenario was laid out. If you can stomach that sort of journey, I would definitely recommend reading this, but it is not always going to be a fun ride. This was one of the most emotionally-stirring classics I’ve read in a long time, but I am definitely hoping to read a few fluffier things before I dive into more Kafka.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you are in a stable headspace at the time.

(Note: I always try to find the cover image from the edition of a book that I read, and in this case I am glad to have found a more subdued example at the local library. Kafka himself was apparently adamant that Gregor’s bug form not be depicted literally on any cover or promotional art, and I do like the quiet anxiety and grief of this cover as opposed to just slapping on a drawing of a cockroach.)

Reading Resolution: “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith

13. A collection of poetry: Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

List Progress: 19/25

My preferences for poetry tend to be on two extremes: either very stylized, full rhyming couplets and romantic imagery, or very direct and contemporary, free verse and clear topics and viewpoints. Don’t Call Us Dead, a 2017 poetry collection by Danez Smith, is very much in the latter category, and very, very good at what it does. Lovely imagery, lovely but uncomplicated language, and very direct imagery. The whole collection is about Smith’s relationships to his identity as a gay man, a black man, and an HIV positive man, as well as the connections between all three and how he and other gay black men exist in America. It’s very strong stuff and I definitely recommend it. And not just because Smith is from Minnesota like me.

For a slim book, I spent at least a couple weeks reading through Don’t Call Us Dead, as I didn’t want to read more than a few poems at a time. Smith has a fairly distinctive writing voice and I wouldn’t want the individual poems to run together. That being said, I do recommend reading Smith’s poems in this collection form, so one piece informs the other informs the whole. It’s a collection to be savored and lingered over. You need a certain degree of comfort with uncomfortable topics, with how explicitly Smith described gay sex and his relationship with his body after his HIV diagnosis, but these are not poems designed to make you comfortable. Not a breezy read, but one that I would highly recommend, even if you’re not much of a poetry person.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “Bitch Planet: Volume One” by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro

15. A graphic novel: Bitch Planet: Volume One by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro

image

List Progress: 18/25

As you could perhaps guess from a comic with this title, Bitch Planet is not subtle. Started by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrator Valentine De Landro in 2014, the ongoing series takes place on the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, a prison planet for “non-compliant” women nicknamed Bitch Planet. Bitch Planet: Volume One- Extraordinary Machine collects the first five issues, introduces lead prisoner character Kamau Kogo and sets up a plot of a team of prisoners being volunteered for a popular bloodsport back on a Earth, but most of this volume is spent showing the dystopia they all live in and how much (or little) a woman’s place in the world has changed. It’s very heavy-handed, but being a bit broad doesn’t make it any less fun.

The setting of Bitch Planet is a very active and thrilling dystopic world, reminding me of a sci-fi version of Mad Max: Fury Road melted into V for Vendetta’s political intrigue and authoritarian government. Women are policed at every turn for being too aggressive, loud, bold, defiant, manipulative, and basically anything other than accommodating and kind. (And to the series’ credit, they do address the racial connotations of the set-up as well, how this system is just one more in a long line of systems implicitly designed to cage women of color.) Some components like the CGI female figures they have giving announcements and working as news anchors cross slightly into cartoony, but in a way that’s not too incongruous with the drama. While I don’t care too much about any individual character yet (save Penny, the one character given a full backstory issue so far), I am intrigued by the world and want to go along for the ride.

On an organizational nitpick, it’s frustrating how the panels will occasionally shift to two-page spreads with no rhyme or reason, not just on splash pages, and a moment when dialogue was swallowed in the center crease makes me think that no one considered how these panels would look in trade paperbacks that can’t be opened as flat as individual comics. I hope that will be corrected going into the second volume, but that is to say that I’m thinking about reading said second volume. I’m not racing out to get it, and some characters needs to get me hooked for me to read any past that, but for the moment I’m on board.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde

18. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for:
 Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde

List Progress: 17/25

In between chapters of the realistic, dour, painful Marriage of a Thousand Lies, I interspersed something a bit more cheerful with Lady Windermere’s Fan, a 1892 comedy play by Oscar Wilde himself. I have never read any Wilde, no The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I am coming into his body of work a bit sideways. As an introduction to this famous figure, Lady Windermere’s Fan is accessible, easily readable and engaging…and that’s about it. I can see how a lively cast could make this work sparkle, but on the page, I found myself fairly neutral towards it.

Lady Windermere’s Fan tells the story of a high-society young woman who is informed by the community gossips that her husband has been seen consorting with another woman. She reacts poorly to this news and makes hasty and drastic responses, while her husband and the other woman deal with their own web of secrets. The plot is fairly basic and linear, but it sets the stage for a lot of great wordplay and eloquent speeches. There was more drama than I anticipated, as some of the scenes do dig deep into Lady Windermere’s conflicted emotions and the pathos of all these secrets and lies. But the setting and the high-society position of all the characters undercuts the drama by making it all feel so frivolous.

I know that people come to Wilde for the wordcraft, and it is good, would probably be a ton of fun with some talented actors outfitted in lavish costumes. But sitting down and reading it was just okay. I’ll be sure to read Earnest or Dorian Gray before I finalize my opinion on Oscar Wilde, but it’s fairly neutral as is.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, but try to see it on stage first.

Reading Resolution: “Marriage of a Thousand Lies” by SJ Sindu

4. A book written in South Asia: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

List Progress: 16/25

Indecision is tricky to write. Plot is almost always created by characters choosing things, committing to paths and seeing them to their end or switching to other paths when the first one doesn’t pan out. A character can be indecisive for a while, but eventually they need to choose something. Anything. If they don’t, you can end really strong individual character scenes, set in a wandering, repetitive, formless plot. Which is the trap that Marriage of the Thousand Lies, the 2017 novel by SJ Sindu, unfortunately falls into.

(On a quick side note, this is a bit of a cheat to use this book for the South Asian category; Sindu was born in Sri Lanka, but raised in Massachusetts, the same as protagonist Lucky. However, the book deals largely with Sri Lankan American culture and the immigrant experience, so I’m going to count it.)

The basic premise is that Lucky is a lesbian in a marriage of convenience with her gay male friend in order to live up to her parents’ expectations and be accepted in the local Tamil community. Her relatively comfortable balance is thrown off when her childhood best friend and first love Nisha announces her own upcoming marriage to a man. Lucky is torn between her commitment to her family that rejects her sexuality, her wish to be like her butch white lesbian friends who seemingly live out and proud without a care, and her hope that Nisha will choose her, which Nisha constantly goes back and forth on. The initial set-up is fascinating and richly portrayed, but then…nothing changes. Things happen to Lucky, things happen around Lucky, but she very rarely takes any real action. Nisha is even more indecisive, and it becomes difficult to care about characters who can never decide what they want.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies was a definite page turner, I found myself wanting to keep engaging with Lucky, but it became clear as the book entered the final third that there could be no truly satisfying ending. Part of that does feel very real and intentional; a lesbian living in a very homophobic family environment is unlikely to find any pat or tidy answers to her dilemmas. But part of it does also feel like a structural issue with the novel, where Lucky will occasionally immerse herself in distractions that come across as tangents, never to be returned to or mentioned once the main action of the subplot has passed. The book engages so much with messy emotions that it becomes messy itself.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies has a lot to offer, especially to young queer people navigating a second generation immigrant experience. With a few more drafts, I feel like this book could really shine, but Sindu isn’t quite there yet.

Would I Recommend It: Not really.

Reading Resolution: “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien

19. A book we have lied about reading:
 The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

List Progress: 15/25

You know the look. The look in a geek’s eyes when they ask you if you’ve read something and you know exactly how the conversation will go if you say no. That moment when you have to decide, to lie or to endure a rambling retelling of an entire trilogy. I have often chosen to lie when it comes to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve seen the film trilogy based on the books and it helped me fake my way through any conversation. It was easier to say “yes, I’ve read it” then “I tried and couldn’t get past how boring Tom Bombadil was”.

But now, some four hundred pages later, I can truthfully say that I’ve completed it. And I have to admit, it was a better ride than I had expected.

The Fellowship of the Ring, published in 1954, feels almost too big to talk about these days. The tropes set here have become such an industry standard and the movies are so well known in the public consciousness that it feels difficult to say anything that people haven’t already said. But I was happy to find some character beats and nuances here that felt like new additions to my mental concept of Fellowship: Aragorn’s indecision and unreadiness to be a leader, the differences between Merry and Pippin, the anti-dwarf prejudice in Lothlorien. I was excited to find things there that I didn’t expect and some that I actually preferred to the adaptations’ take on it.

I am still not sold on slower, indulgent sections like the Tom Bombadil sequence, but not nearly as frustrated as I was reading this as a younger woman. I have some legitimate issues with the pacing of the story and how Tolkien seems afraid of raw emotions, but I was able to get into the groove of the journey.

The one section that genuinely impressed me were the Mines of Moria. The atmosphere was so rich there, really painting that the Fellowship spent days in the darkness, eating there, sleeping there, with no escape from the dark and quiet. It was a genuinely immersive experience that the films were not able to give me, and that alone made any slogs worth it.

I am not rushing out to read the second installment, The Two Towers. But I can see picking it up in the next year, which was not something I expected to say. I thought I would reach the end and throw the book away from me. It’s nice to be surprised. And I won’t have to lie anymore.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.